The Limits to US-Vietnam Ties
Image Credit: USAID

The Limits to US-Vietnam Ties


This summer marks 36 years since the fall of Saigon, 16 since the United States and Vietnam established diplomatic relations, and 14 since the US Embassy in Hanoi opened its doors. Today, the two countries find themselves sharing more positions on a broader range of issues than ever before. Indeed, diplomats have even spoken in terms of a ‘strategic partnership’ developing between Hanoi and Washington.

Policymakers in both capitals justifiably speak with pride and enthusiasm of their achievements, and the great potential that exists to develop an even more robust relationship in coming years. Speaking on May 31 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell spoke of Washington’s ‘desire and intention to improve this relationship going forward.’

Yet while both sides rightly want to grow closer, absent improvements in human rights and political freedoms in Vietnam, the Barack Obama administration has taken engagement with the Vietnamese government as far as it can without alienating the US public and Congress. Although there remains room on both sides for further adaptation and accommodation, the onus now rests squarely on Hanoi to meet the US halfway by pursuing domestic policy reforms, particularly in the areas of political freedom and civil rights. Effectively addressing these Vietnamese domestic issues – what Campbell referred to as a ‘limiting factor’ in the relationship – would give the Obama administration a greater ability to work with Vietnam and allow the relationship to progress to the next level.

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Since taking office, Obama has expended energy and political capital in pursuit of strong ties with Southeast Asia. After eight years that saw Washington disengaged and distracted from Southeast Asia, on coming to power Obama moved quickly to increase US engagement with this important region. Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, US engagement with Vietnam has grown particularly fast – though admittedly from a low base – to a level not seen since the heady days when President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi in 2000 and delivered the first ever speech by a foreign leader to be broadcast live across Vietnam.

In pursuing stronger ties with Southeast Asia and defending US maritime interests, the United States earned Beijing’s ire when, at the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Hanoi last July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aligned the US with Southeast Asian countries by raising concerns about China’s ambitious maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and calling for ‘a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants.’

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