Will President Obama invite his Vietnamese counterpart, Truong Tan Sang, to sample a Big Mac American-style during his visit to the United States? This past week the mainstream media have been overwhelmed by news of the forthcoming McDonald's opening in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. This development should not have come as a surprise, especially since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, but it did provide an opportunity to renew a seasoned debate about the actual winner of the war between the U.S. and Vietnam. A war that ended on 30 April, 1975 with the entrance of North Vietnamese forces in the former Saigon and the frenzied flight of the last American citizens by helicopter from the rooftop of the embassy.
Much more interesting was the announcement of the official visit of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's President to Washington at the invitation of the U.S. President from July 24 – 26, especially if we consider that Sang's visit is only the second by a Vietnamese head of state to Washington since 1995, after Nguyen Minh Triet’s visit in 2007. “The visit has come at a time when the two nations are diversifying their exchange channels in the drive for development,” the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., Nguyen Quoc Cuong, stated. These “channels” will presumably strengthen relationship between Washington and Hanoi in different fields, predominantly at the political and economic level.
Indeed it should not be forgotten that already at the beginning of June during the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum held in Singapore, Vietnamese Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung announced that “it is our desire to establish strategic partnerships with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” As underlined recently in a research paper by Prof. Carlyle A. Thayer, a leading scholar on Vietnam at the Australia Defence Force Academy, “Vietnam already negotiated strategic partnerships with China, Russia and the United Kingdom. Now Vietnam was signaling that it was seeking to upgrade its relations with the United States and France.”
It will also be interesting to see how far the two parties are ready to go in improving relations in the field of defense and security. This is an issue that necessarily involves a debate on human rights, on which the U.S. government appears unwilling to compromise. In a few words, Hanoi wants to have the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) restrictions removed and Washington has been asking of its counterpart to improve its human rights record. At present, Vietnam is permitted to purchase non-lethal items on a case-by-case basis. “However, ITAR has been amended recently to permit the sale of dual use (military/civilian) equipment and technology,” Thayer writes, thus raising the possibility of defense-related sales to Vietnam.
Among other issues, “the President also looks forward to discussing human rights,” as underlined in a statement released July 11, 2013 by the White House. However, “human rights should be part [of a larger U.S.] strategy, but should not become the focal point that impedes progress in other areas,” argues Prof. Thayer.
In fact “the President welcomes this opportunity to discuss with President Sang how to further strengthen our partnership on regional strategic issues and enhance our cooperation with ASEAN […] and the importance of completing a high standard Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement,” the With House statement said.
In this context it is not a coincidence that Sang arrives in Washington one month after Vietnam’s defense chief, Senior Lieutenant General Do Ba Ty, visited the Pentagon for the first time since the end of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War 40 years ago. The chief of the general staff of the People’s Army of Vietnam met with U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs.
“Sang’s arrival will give both sides an opportunity to recalibrate the bilateral relationship,” writes Murray Hiebert, CSIS Senior Fellow and Deputy Director. The talks should tell us more also about the two countries respective relationships with China. Nowadays, both Vietnam and the U.S. are generally very careful not to upset the People's Republic of China. Sang meets Obama after the official talks in Beijing with Xi Jinping, who welcomed his Vietnamese counterpart just after returning from Washington. A network of relationships that has implications not only at a bilateral, but also at a regional level, where one of the major flashpoints is the dispute in the South China Sea, called the East Sea by the Vietnamese.
At the beginning of June, at the Shangri-La dialogue, the Vietnamese Prime Minister made an appeal for greater strategic trust. More specifically, Vietnam’s Prime Minister called for unity among Southeast Asian countries, especially in this historical moment when China is asserting its claims in the South China Sea. An appeal that has not fallen on deaf ears in the U.S., evidently seeking a further partner in Vietnam to support its 'pivot' in Asia Pacific. This is a strategic decision, seen with suspicion by Beijing, which fears a containment action by Washington. For its part, Hanoi cannot disengage from its relationship with China, which is bound by political and economic relations.
On the one hand, bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam have improved dramatically since normalization in 1995. The two-way trade reached $25 billion in 2012 (with the United States suffering a trade deficit of almost $16 billion) and they are partners in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations. To go into effect, a TPP agreement (if one is reached) would require approval by both houses of Congress. On the other hand, Vietnam has a trade deficit with China of circa $16 billion. During Sang's visit to China, Xi promised that it would “actively take effective and drastic measures” to reduce this deficit.
This economic picture clearly shows the Vietnamese dilemma. Hanoi wants to maintain its economic growth, but at the same time it needs to build new political and military relationships with superpowers like the U.S. in order to counterbalance the 'rising China'.
Despite China and Vietnam having recently pledged to boost cooperation and taken actions like setting up naval hotlines to prevent conflicts, the threat of confrontation is more real than ever, especially because of the aggressive behaviour showed by Beijing. Hanoi wants to forge new and stronger relations with countries that might provide their support vis-à-vis China. It is in this perspective that one should look at Hanoi's relationships with the U.S., Australia, India and the major players in ASEAN, like Indonesia. And one should also not forget that ASEAN is chaired by Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh and that it remains the natural strategic field to lobby for Vietnam's interest and to reinforce the call for a binding Code of Conduct among ASEAN and China on the South China Sea.