The visit of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington to Vietnam last month was more than just a highly visible symbol of the United States’ re-engagement with its former nemesis. It was, in fact, an indication that Washington is intent on still relying on its ‘4.5 acres of sovereign territory’ in its dealings with Asia, rather than falling back on a G-2 arrangement with China.
But the engagement with Vietnam that the visit also demonstrated goes deeper than just this show of force—Washington is looking to move beyond symbolism to engage in a genuine strategic partnership, the cornerstone of which will be the US-Vietnam 123 nuclear cooperation agreement.
Unsurprisingly, the deal has already riled China and non-proliferation proponents alike, who note that the deal being offered to Vietnam is devoid of the standard strings that have characterised other deals with emerging nuclear nations, including the United Arab Emirates.
Most notably, Vietnam won’t have to abandon having the option to carry out nuclear fuel cycle activities on its territory as the UAE had to. This means that Vietnam, can, at least hypothetically, establish enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) facilities in its territory. Of course, the agreement doesn’t mean that the United States is about to transfer any ENR technology to Vietnam—or that the latter is in any hurry to set up its own such facilities. As Vuong Huu Tan, president of the government-affiliated Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, has noted: ‘Vietnam doesn’t intend to enrich as of now because of expensive and very sensitive technology.’
ENR technology is anyway a closely guarded secret that only a handful of countries have the capacity to exploit on an industrial scale. But while any country with a nuclear energy programme would typically like to retain a certain degree of independence—and the NPT actually entitles all of its members to engage in full nuclear co-operation—the reality for many is that commercial and proliferation sensitivities have prompted various restrictions and regimes to be put in place denying them any such technology. In addition, such activities are simply prohibitively expensive for small and mid-sized nuclear estates.
Yet while the UAE’s willingness to forsake fuel cycle activity on its own soil seemed to provide a gold standard Washington could use for its nuclear dealings, the nature of the Vietnam deal implies that a broader technological relationship could yet be crafted between Hanoi and Washington.