Mekong WaveA new milestone in the Vietnam – U.S. relationship

The visit of Vietnam’s President to the U.S. has certainly left its mark on relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States of America. There was much debate about the pos...

The visit of Vietnam’s President to the U.S. has certainly left its mark on relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States of America. There was much debate about the possible outcomes of the visit by Truong Tan Sang in Washington.

On one hand, on the table were the requests from civil society groups in the U.S., some led by Vietnamese Americans, who have long used Hanoi’s human rights abuses to argue against stronger bilateral ties. On the other hand, the Vietnamese and the Amrican governments had expressed their commitment “to opening a new phase of bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States based on mutual respect and common interests.” according to the official statemets on the eve of the meetings.

“President Obama and President Truong Tan Sang decided to form a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership to provide an overarching framework for advancing the relationship. They underlined the principles of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, including respect for the United Nations Charter, international law, and each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” reads the joint statement after the meeting between Sang and Obama in the Oval Office on July 25, 2013.

“In the process of expanding its foreign relations Vietnam has had to treat some states as more equal than others. Vietnam has applied the term ‘strategic partner’ to single out these special states,” Carlyle A. Thayer, a leading scholar on Vietnam at the Australia Defence Force Academy, explained. Currently Vietnam has formed strategic partnerships with eleven countries: the Russian Federation (2001), Japan (2006), India (2007), the People’s Republic of China (2008), South Korea (2009), Spain (2009), the United Kingdom(2010), Germany (2011), Italy (2013), Singapore (2013) and Indonesia (2013). Vietnam’s partnerships with Russia and China were later raised to “comprehensive strategic partner” and “strategic cooperative partner”, respectively.

During the bilateral meeting the two Presidents held discussions on a wide range of issues, including human rights. “We discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights, and we emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly […] And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain,” Obama told reporters, with Sang by his side, after the Oval Office meeting. Sang, the second Vietnamese head of state to visit the White House since relations were resumed in 1995, said that they touched on the human rights topic underlining that “we still have differences on the issue.”

“We accept that there are differences,” Sang said separately in a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “The most viable way is to continue our dialogue in a frank manner so as to enhance understanding and to narrow differences.”

From an American perspective, human rights and the promotion of U.S. values are just one of the three pillars of U.S. foreign policy. The general impression is that Obama and his administration have placed more emphasis on the other two pillars–strategic and economic interests–during Sang’s visit to Washington.

Recalling their discussions in Cambodia in November 2012, President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang reaffirmed their commitment to conclude a comprehensive, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement as soon as possible this year. This would potentially be the largest free-trade agreement ever, including countries that make up about 40 percent of world trade, and is seen as as an economic bloc to counterbalance China, but also as an effort to increase trade and commerce throughout the Asia Pacific region. “We’re committed to the ambitious goal of completing this agreement before the end of the year because we know that this can create jobs and increase investment across the region and in both our countries,” President Obama said.

Critics say the negotiations are shrouded in secrecy, but leaks indicate that the U.S. is trying to use the treaty to impose restrictive intellectual property rules that could prove incredibly damaging to developing countries. Analysts warn that Vietnam should be very cautious about an agreement that may not be in its national interest. “It certainly seems geared, like most free-trade agreements, to benefit corporations more than citizens,” Edwin Martini, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University in the U.S., said–an impression echoed by Vietnamese media.

Last April the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Vietnamese Communist Party, adopted a resolution on international integration, highlighting the role of the major powers and key multilateral institutions. “This document made absolutely clear that priority was to be given to economic integration and that all other forms of integration, including security and defense, were to support this objective,” Prof. Thayer underlined.

Furthermore, the Presidents stressed “the importance of economic cooperation as a foundation and engine for the new U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership.” Hence they agreed “to enhance cooperation under the U.S.-Vietnam Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council as well as under the ASEAN Enhanced Economic Engagement initiative and in APEC to increase economic and trade engagement in line with the bilateral Comprehensive Partnership and shared objectives in the World Trade Organization (WTO), APEC, and ASEAN fora.” Bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam have improved dramatically since normalization in 1995. Their two-way trade reached $25 billion in 2012 (with the United States suffering a trade deficit of almost $16 billion).

Under these economic circumstances, President Sang was also able to secure for his country continued assistance from the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during separate meetings with them in Washington on July 24. “He suggested the WB continue providing Vietnam with official development assistance (ODA) and assistance to its infrastructure development projects while proposing to the IMF to increase policy consultancies and back Vietnam’s economic restructuring and growth model transformation process,” as reported by Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

If economic issues played a major role during the bilateral talks, the two leaders agreed that the United States and Vietnam would continue to cooperate also on defense and security. “They expressed satisfaction with the Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation of 2011 and reaffirmed their commitment to its full implementation,” the joint statement said. President Obama thus welcomed Vietnam’s decision to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations and emphasized the United States’ desire to assist with training and other support for this effort through the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI).

On the political and diplomatic front, President Obama affirmed the United States’ support “for Vietnam’s independence, sovereignty, prosperity, and integration into the international community.” President Truong Tan Sang on the other hand welcomed the United States’ enhanced cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, “which contributes to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region,” as underlined in the joint statement. Moreover, the two leaders reaffirmed their support for the settlement of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including those reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), thus underscoring “the value of full observance of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the importance of launching negotiations to conclude an effective Code of Conduct (COC).”

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