Why a US-Vietnam Nuclear Deal?

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Why a US-Vietnam Nuclear Deal?

A rising China has pushed the US and Vietnam together. The 123 nuclear agreement could just be the start of warmer ties.

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.

With its industrial activity in the north of the country expanding rapidly, Vietnam has been prompted to explore nuclear power as a ‘clean’ way of meeting its growing electricity demands. But a 123 agreement with the United States is unlikely to stop at nuclear co-operation. As US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said during her visit to Hanoi in July, ‘Ties between the two countries will be taken to the next level.’

What could this mean? Certainly US firms can be expected to play an increasing role in Vietnam’s industrial development, something that would likely necessitate a much broader deal than Washington has arranged with other countries.

For example, a number of instrumentation technologies are classified as dual use by the US State Department, but will be required if Hanoi wishes to exploit its offshore hydrocarbon resources. Unlike in the Middle East, US oil majors aren’t already entrenched in Vietnam’s fossil fuel sector, and an excessively restrictive deal would adversely affect their ability to compete.

Such differences mean that the Vietnam arrangement is more akin to the India nuclear deal than the one with the UAE, a point no more evident than at the strategic level. Indeed, although it’s on a quite different scale, the philosophy and rationale underpinning a US-Vietnam 123 are remarkably similar to the Indo-US nuclear deal.

So why is the United States so interested in making an India-like exception to its nuclear arrangements with Vietnam? China.

As another wary neighbour of China, Vietnam is a potentially sympathetic US partner in any attempts to keep expansionist Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea in check. With a long maritime tradition and a knack for military upsets (the Vietnamese have managed to defeat the French, Americans and Chinese on different occasions), combined with its very sizeable armed forces, Vietnam is potentially an indispensable ally in any possible regional flare-up.

So could US weapons sales follow the nuclear deal? Of course, Vietnam wouldn’t be looking to replace all of its Soviet-era weaponry with US weapons. But if a closer strategic partnership is forged, Vietnam would certainly be eager to secure technologies that might help to mitigate some of the advantages that China’s much larger forces hold. And regardless, as with India, it would likely embrace having a more diversified portfolio of weapon suppliers.

Yet any concerns that the envisaged arrangement with the United States somehow confers on Hanoi a breakout capability would be overblown. For a start, a country looking to quickly develop a nuclear weapons capability would be more likely to follow the North Korean route of plutonium reprocessing, while Vietnam’s ‘right to reprocess’ would probably anyway require a separate agreement. In any case, nuclear weapons will not per se add to Vietnam’s security interests in the South China Sea vis-à-vis the People’s Republic, because while nuclear weapons could in effect offer Vietnam a land-based stalemate, any real action would take place in the waters of the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, Vietnam may well have had two motivations for wanting to retain the right to carry out ENR activities on its soil.

One could be that the country is simply looking to the future—it’s possible that Vietnam’s nuclear programme will grow to a point where it may feel the need to fabricate fuel itself rather than depend on imports.

Another reason that can’t be discounted is that Vietnam may have concluded that the best way to patrol its off-shore drilling sites is to acquire a nuclear submarine (Brazil has reached a similar conclusion). The fuel for one or two nuclear submarines wouldn’t have to be fabricated on an industrial scale, and it’s understandable why Hanoi might like to ensure the independence of such a national security asset.

And there’s certainly evidence to suggest Vietnam is taking an increasing interest in bolstering its maritime forces—it has already made a significant investment in its undersea capabilities, for example, by ordering six kilo-class submarines from Russia. However, diesel electric submarines, while excellent for littoral operations, don’t provide the time on station required for protecting deep water assets such as oil platforms. Given that both France and Russia seem to be in the market for making strategic transfers in this class, and as both have long-standing relations with Vietnam, a nuclear-powered attack subarine for the Vietnamese Navy is a genuine possibility at some point. (Indeed, a nuclear submarine would likely be seen as a far better investment than nuclear weapons).

It’s an interesting irony that just as China was itself built up by the US as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, in part through industrial partnerships and technology transfers, the same is now being done in varying degrees to nations on China’s periphery.

It’s a reality that in the long run makes a multi-polar rather than G-2 world that much more likely.

Saurav Jha is the author of ‘The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power” (HarperCollins India 2010). He researches global energy and security issues and writes regularly for World Politics Review, Deccan Herald and Geopolitics.