When Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc travels to the United States later this month, he will be the first national leader from Southeast Asia and the third from an Asian—but not Middle Eastern—country after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping were hosted by President Donald Trump. Although this does not mean that Vietnam is the third most important country in the region for the United States, it says something about the eagerness with which Hanoi and Washington, DC are reaching out to each other and the priority each enjoys in the agenda of the other.
The United States and Vietnam have important economic and security issues to discuss. With $32 billion of bilateral-trade surplus, Vietnam ranked sixth among the countries that contributed to the United States’ $502 billion trade deficit last year. With ideological ties to North Korea, Hanoi can play a role in Washington’s effort to isolate and pressure the emerging nuclear-armed state. And stretching along the western coast of the South China Sea, Vietnam holds a key to the regional balance of power. After the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Hanoi is eager to know what the Trump administration can offer instead of that multilateral-trade agreement. The Vietnamese are also nervous about the possibility that Washington may trade its interests in the South China Sea for Chinese cooperation in taming North Korea.
While these hot issues make Prime Minister Phuc’s trip desirable, it is a new level of U.S.-Vietnam relations that makes it possible. Without this new level, Vietnam would not have sent one of its top leaders and the U.S. president would not have cleared his schedule for a visit from Vietnam at this early stage. Understanding the underlying forces that have formed the plateau on which the U.S.-Vietnam engagement operates is a key to making sound policy on Vietnam. To this end, let’s first review the trajectories of U.S. policy toward Vietnam as well as those of Vietnam’s policy toward the United States.
U.S.-Vietnam Relations Viewed from Ten Thousand Feet
Once a place where three million Americans fought a decade-long war, Vietnam was relegated to a low priority in U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s. In this long period, noted Raymond Burghardt, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2001 to 2004, “the U.S. approach to Vietnam was separate from any strategic plan for the East Asia region.” The restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995 was an enormous landmark in the bilateral relationship, but it was not a major turning point in the United States’ approach to Vietnam. As Burghardt observed, bilateral ties strengthened in the late 1990s with the focus turned toward economic opportunities, but the progress moved at a slow pace.
A major turning point in the United States’ approach to Vietnam took place in 2001, when the George W. Bush administration brought in a more critical view of China than those of the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. President Bill Clinton in 1997 pledged to work toward a “constructive strategic partnership” with China, but candidate Bush in 1999 said China should be viewed as a “strategic competitor,” not a “strategic partner.” Spelling out the logic behind this belief, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, argued in a 2000 article that as China had “unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea,” it “resent[ed] the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region” and “would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor.” Flowing logically from this geopolitical rationale was an enhanced role for Vietnam in U.S. foreign policy.
The Bush administration’s overtures to Vietnam—dialogue on strategic issues and cooperation in defense and security areas—were initially met with stiff resistance in Hanoi. After a short-lived rebalance to the West during 1987–1989, Vietnam pivoted to China in 1990, a sea change marked by the secret meeting at Chengdu in September that year between Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Party chiefs and heads of government. While reformers in the Vietnamese regime pursued U.S. ties as a doorway to the world and a counterweight to China, conservatives were adamant that China was an ally and America an adversary. In 1990 the balance of power between the two blocs tilted decisively in favor of the conservatives. As a result, Vietnam remained near the Chinese orbit and was careful not to veer close to the equidistant line between the two great powers. At his visit to China in December 2001, Vietnam Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh vowed to oppose “hegemonism,” repeating the Chinese slogan for a fight against U.S. role and power. This was the first time that the anti-U.S. mantra appeared in a joint Sino-Vietnamese statement; but it was also the last.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 triggered a radical change in Vietnam’s strategic assessment. In less than fifty days, a regional power in the Middle East collapsed under the weight of U.S. military power. Vietnam’s regime conservatives woke up after the conquest realizing that they were living in a unipolar world with the United States at the top. Officials in Hanoi asked me seriously at that time whether Vietnam or North Korea would be the next target. In July 2003, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam passed a new national-security strategy (usually known as Resolution 8) that removed ideology as the key for determining friend and foe. Hanoi adopted more pragmatic criteria, according to which a foreign state was a “partner of cooperation” (đối tác) or a “target of struggle” (đối tượng) contingent on its attitude toward Vietnam’s goals, not its ideological orientation. Now the reformers’ pursuit of a strategic partnership with the United States was no longer unthinkable and their view of China as a strategic competitor no longer a taboo. The 2003 strategy also made possible the move toward the equidistant line between China and the United States. In the second half of the year, as Ambassador Burghardt recalled, “Vietnamese leaders informed us they would now welcome major steps that they had resisted for years.”
The 2003 turning point in Vietnamese foreign policy paved the way for the country to fully join the U.S-led international order. Until the second half of 2003, negotiations on Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) moved at a snail’s pace because conservatives who viewed the WTO as a U.S. scheme to turn Vietnam into a capitalist country were able to block them. After the 2003 strategy, Hanoi accelerated the negotiation and quickly joined the group in 2006. Vietnam became a globalization enthusiast and in 2008 it readily accepted the Bush administration’s offer to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led free-trade arrangement with even more transformative effect than the WTO.
Starting in the late 2000s, increased Chinese challenges, particularly Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, gave a new impetus to the emerging U.S.-Vietnam partnership. A year after her July 2010 declaration at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi that “the United States has a national interest” in the South China Sea, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out a new U.S. strategy, often called the “pivot,” in which the United States aspired to develop a strategic partnership with Vietnam. During her trip to Vietnam in July 2012, Clinton made a profound gesture of friendship by inviting Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, who held no government position, to the United States. The Americans hoped at that time that Trong’s unprecedented visit would be made right in 2013.
But conservatives in Hanoi were able to torpedo the preparation for Trong’s trip. What Vietnam’s reformers and their American counterpart could reach in 2013 was not the Communist Party chief’s visit to the United States but one by President Truong Tan Sang, which culminated in a joint statement of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. It would take a major act of Chinese provocation to remove the roadblocks set up by the conservatives.
In the summer of 2014, China deployed its biggest oil rig, the $1 billion HYSY-981, into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The incident sparked months-long intense protests from Vietnam, causing the worst crisis in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the massacre of seventy Vietnamese sailors and seizure of six reefs in the Spratly Islands by China in 1988. The oil rig crisis proved a game changer—it helped Vietnamese leaders to see China as a real opponent and America as a best friend. It was during this crisis that Hanoi decided to speed up preparations for General Secretary Trong’s U.S. trip, which would be materialized in July 2015.
President Barack Obama’s protocol-breaking hosting of Vietnam’s Communist Party chief at the White House was a path-breaking event. It sent a costly signal that convinced Vietnamese leaders of the benign nature of U.S. power regarding their communist regime. If the oil rig crisis of 2014 marked the first time that Hanoi trusted Washington more than it trusted Beijing, Trong’s U.S. trip solidified this disposition and drastically reduced Vietnamese leaders’ perception of the U.S. threat. Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May 2016, during which he completely lifted the arms embargo that the United States imposed on Vietnam for decades, added another boost to increasing mutual trust and reducing threat perception between the two former enemies.
U.S.-Vietnam relations operate within a relatively restricted field of possibility that is primarily shaped not just by the United States and Vietnam but also by China, albeit indirectly. As Vietnam is the secondary state between the two great powers, a vital question for Hanoi is how to manage its political and diplomatic distance (or proximity) to Beijing and Washington. From 1990 until the second half of 2003, Vietnam remained near the Chinese orbit; even a position close to the equidistant line between America and China was politically impossible. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 radically changed Hanoi’s appraisal of the global balance of power. The national-security strategy adopted in July 2003 allowed Vietnam to reach the equidistant line, but moving toward that line was in no way frictionless and Vietnam continued to oscillate within the Chinese side of the line. The HYSY-981 oil rig crisis of 2014 helped Hanoi to break free of these self-imposed restrictions. Within just a few years, Vietnam moved to the vicinity of the equidistant line, at times even crossed the line to be relatively closer to the United States. This is the enabling, but also constraining, context within which Prime Minister Phuc will visit the United States next week.
The plateau on which the U.S.-Vietnam engagement operates is made of convergent interests and mutual trust. It is elevated largely by a combination of China’s aggressive power and America’s competent and kind power. The two major turning points in U.S. policy toward Vietnam (2001 and 2011) resulted from the view that China’s revisionist power needed to be balanced and that Vietnam could play a key role in that effort. China’s perceived aggressiveness was also the cause of the second turning point in Vietnam’s U.S. policy (2014). But the first turning point in Vietnam’s U.S. policy (2003) was the combined effect of U.S. brilliant power as demonstrated in the Iraq invasion and America’s benign power embodied in Washington’s initiatives of dialogue and cooperation with Hanoi.
How to Make America Great with Vietnam
While managing the political and diplomatic distance to Washington and Beijing is vital to Vietnam’s well-being between the giants, managing Hanoi’s perception of the international balance of power is a key to America’s success in Asia. The latter involves three major aspects: boosting both countries’ economic and military capabilities, demonstrating America’s competence in the hegemonic contest with China, and maintaining a friendly attitude toward Vietnam.
These imperatives can be materialized by a wide range of policies that are not confined to bilateral U.S.-Vietnam relations. With regard to U.S. policy toward Vietnam, three arrangements hold the key to the pursuit of these imperatives: a forward-looking trade and investment pact; a pro-law—not pro-status quo—approach to the South China Sea; and a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam.
A Forward-Looking Trade and Investment Pact
The United States and Vietnam need a robust trade and investment pact that boosts the economic, and indirectly the military, power of both countries in a way that is sustainable in the long run and geopolitically beneficial. The existing bilateral trade and investment agreements fall short of these objectives. In the last decade, both countries were engaged in the negotiation of a new, multilateral trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was supposed to serve this triple goal. The TPP would not only open wide market access, but it would also create a counterbalance to China’s economic pull effect and, in the case of Vietnam, force the country to reform its state sector and improve its public spending. However, the 2016 presidential election suggested that the TPP as a whole was domestically undesirable in the United States.
If a multilateral agreement is difficult to attain, the United States and Vietnam should negotiate a new trade and investment agreement with the triple goal mentioned above in mind. The new arrangement should be aimed at reforming both the current state of U.S.-Vietnam trade and Vietnam’s domestic economic environment. The current situation features a double deficit in favor of China. In 2016, for example, the United States suffered a trade deficit of $32 billion with Vietnam and Vietnam suffered a trade deficit of $28 billion with China. Technology imports from China outweighed those from the United States, resulting in a structural constraint that kept Vietnam on the lower rungs of the technology ladder. The new trade-and-investment pact should be aimed at reducing U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam by increasing U.S. exports of equipment and high-tech goods and reducing Vietnam’s trade deficit with China. To this end, trade negotiations should avoid the usual manner of the give-and-take based on present and special interests. Such myopic tendency can relief immediate pains but is counterproductive in the long run. Instead, the aim of the negotiation should be to improve the domestic environment in Vietnam looking forward so it will create an expanding market for high-quality goods from the United States and shrink the market for low-quality goods from China.
A Pro-Law—Not Pro-Status Quo—Approach to the South China Sea
Not all places are created equal on the geopolitical chessboard. The economic geography of Asia dictates that whoever controls the sea lines of communication that run through the East and South China Seas will dominate Asia. China’s recent building of artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly Islands has made the South China Sea a bottleneck on Asia’s lifeline, which carries 80–90 percent of the oil imports to China and Japan. If China can turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, then America’s role and influence in Asia will be severely undermined.
The South China Sea is where the core interests of the United States, Vietnam and China intersect. Freedom of the seas and sea-lane security (the United States and Vietnam vs. China), territorial security (Vietnam vs. China) and regional balance of power (the United States and Vietnam vs. China) are at stake in this place. While U.S. and Vietnamese interests here overlap substantially, they clash with those of China diametrically.
For years the United States’ approach to the South China Sea has been aimed at maintaining the status quo, while China’s is to creepingly shift it in Beijing’s favor. By acting in the gray zone between peace and open conflict and moving like slicing the salami, Beijing has been successful in changing both the geography and the power propensity of the region without triggering an armed resistance from its opponents. By clinging to the status quo, Washington inadvertently ties itself to the evolving status quo that reflects Chinese advantage and disables itself to roll back to the status quo ante, which is its real goal.
The choice of the pro-status quo approach is based on three assumptions. First, as a defensive posture, it is morally justifiable. Second, the status quo is favorable to U.S. interests than a revision of it. And third, the pro-status quo approach helps to avoid war as it tends to de-escalate conflict and defuse tension.
The latter two of these assumptions are wrong, however. It is the status quo ante, not the status quo, that is favorable to U.S. interests. The current status quo in the South China Sea—with China’s large artificial islands, long airstrips, deep-water harbors, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, and high-frequency radars—is far less favorable to the status quo ante that existed before the building of the artificial islands. But the pro-status quo approach commits the United States to the current status quo and dismisses a rollback to the status quo ante as unreasonable. This allows China to shape the evolving status quo to the expense of the United States and other stakeholders, brewing conflict below the surface. While the pro-status quo approach may be able to temporarily stop conflict from escalating on the surface, it is unable to stop conflict from brewing below it. When this brewing reaches a tipping point, war may be too late to prevent.
In the place of the failing pro-status quo approach, the United States should adopt a pro-law approach. The law here refers to the set of laws and legal precedents that are consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other universally recognized principles of international law. The pro-law approach is better than the pro-status quo one on three counts. First, it has the moral high ground of the law while the pro-status quo approach is morally justifiable just because it is defensive. The status quo may be just or unjust, but the law is the law. Second, the pro-law approach endeavors to roll back Chinese expansion to a state of affairs that is consistent with the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This ruling has invalidated the nine-dash line and reduced the disputed waters in the South China Sea from about 80 percent to about 20 percent of the region. This state of affairs is favorable to anyone that has a stake in the freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. Third, the pro-law approach may cause tension to rise temporarily, but there are ways to avoid war when pursuing it. Elsewhere I have outlined a strategy that can contain both Chinese expansion and a U.S.-China war at the same time. At the core of this strategy lies a “whole of capability” approach that combines gray-zone activities with economic sanctions and other indirect measures.
A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Vietnam
Although the United States remains the sole global power in the foreseeable future, China is rapidly narrowing its power gap with the United States in the East Asia region and is poised to become America’s peer regionally. U.S. primacy in this region is being replaced with a new, bipolar regional configuration that features the United States and China as its two poles. In order to stand the ground and maintain its influence, the United States will badly need regional allies.
If allied with the Unites States, Vietnam can augment American power to a great extent. This additional power stems primarily from Vietnam’s strategic location along a bottleneck of the region’s lifeline and at a major gateway to China and its defense capabilities rooted in a large population of more than ninety million and the rich historical experience of dealing with China in war as well as in peace for more than two thousand years.
This alliance is more than just a defense treaty and may not require the formal defense commitment similar to that between the United States and its treaty allies in the region. It needs codification and this can take the title of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Washington and Hanoi have been moving in this direction. The U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership declared in 2013 calls for cooperation in a full range of areas, stretching from political and diplomatic relations to trade and economic ties, from technology and education to defense and security, from culture, sports and tourism to war legacy issues, and from environment and health to the protection of human rights. Facing with the growing challenge from China, this partnership needs to be deepened and upgraded to a more strategic level that will allow the United States and Vietnam to adequately meet the epochal challenge.
Speaking to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on May 20 in Hanoi, Prime Minister Phuc said, “I would like to see the United States continue to maintain its presence in the region.” Just five years ago, this was what some top leaders in Hanoi could only think privately but not say publicly. The field of possibility for U.S.-Vietnam interaction has expanded significantly over the last two decades. The limits and shape of this field of possibility result from both countries’ policies toward each other, which in turn reflect the perceptions of leaders in Washington and Hanoi of the global and Asian balance of power. A key to win the geopolitical game in Asia lies in the skillful management of these perceptions.
At its core, a winning U.S. policy toward Vietnam must perform three major tasks. It must conclude a forward-looking trade and investment agreement that helps to improve Vietnam’s domestic environment, creates an expanding market for high-quality U.S. goods and shrinks the market for low-quality Chinese goods. It must transform the United States’ approach to the South China Sea from one that is wedded to the status quo to one that endeavors to enforce the international law of the sea. Finally, it must achieve a U.S.-Vietnam alliance that can neutralize Chinese primacy in Southeast Asia.
Alexander L. Vuving is Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Part of the research for this article has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation Project on Energy Security and Maritime Strategies in the Indo-Pacific. The author alone is responsible for the views expressed in this article.
Image: Fishermen on Hai Hoa beach in Vietnam. Pixabay/Public domain