Emerging as one of the key bilateral relationships in the Asia-Pacific, ties between the United States and Vietnam have experienced a significant breakthrough in recent times. Somewhat below the radar of the international press, this breakthrough was embodied in the March 15-20 visit to Washington by Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang. Perhaps the media paid little attention to this trip because it was seen as a routine exchange at the minister level. But Quang’s mission was far from routine, and the contents of his talks indicated a qualitative change in U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Heading one of the two most powerful ministries in the Vietnamese government (the other is the Ministry of National Defense), Quang is also a key member of Vietnam’s collective leadership, the Communist Party’s Politburo. Vietnamese news sources reported that he travelled to the United States primarily as a Politburo member and the trip’s main purpose was to prepare for the inaugural visit in June by Vietnam’s supreme leader, General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong.
Unusually for a minister, Quang held talks with senior officials from various U.S. government agencies, including not just the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, but also the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, and the CIA. Quang also met with high-ranking lawmakers in Congress. The topics of his talks went beyond the purview of the minister of public security and ranged from defense and security to trade and investment. Human rights were also a focus of his exchanges with American interlocutors. According to Vietnamese news sources, an important part of Quang’s mission was to strengthen U.S. support for Vietnam in the South China Sea disputes and regional security issues.
By dispatching Quang to the United States, the Politburo in Hanoi was sending a clear message about its attitude toward its former enemy. Quang was picked to go on a preparatory trip for Trong’s visit because he had the confidence of the Communist Party chief. But he was also the commander of the security forces that are responsible for protecting the regime. In this capacity, he would be a primary target of human rights critics in the United States. Quang’s trip as the first official visit by a Vietnamese minister of public security to America implies that Hanoi is now comfortable engaging its ideological challenger. For its part, Washington’s friendly treatment of Quang has reinforced Hanoi’s lower threat perception of the United States.
Quang’s U.S. trip is the latest in a series of meetings that in recent years have transformed the nature of relations between the United States and Vietnam. What kicked off this process is the visit by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Hanoi in July 2012. During that trip, Clinton met with Communist Party chief Trong and invited him to the United States. The symbolism of these gestures was that Washington accepted the ideological differences with the Vietnamese regime and regarded Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party as a partner, and the rulers in Hanoi endorsed this partnership. The meaning of Clinton’s invitation was significant for Hanoi. It suggested that despite being on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, the United States was now committed to a serious friendship with Vietnam. In practical terms, the meeting opened the door to substantive engagement between the U.S. government and the Communist Party of Vietnam.
Clinton’s visit paved the way for the establishment of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which was formally laid out a year later in Washington at the July 2013 summit meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. In this partnership framework, Washington and Hanoi pledged to respect “each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Undergirded by this principle, the framework called for cooperation in a full range of areas, stretching from political and diplomatic relations to trade and economic ties, from technology and education to defense and security, from culture, sports, and tourism to war legacy issues, and from environment and health to the protection and promotion of human rights.
In early October 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry met with visiting Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, the United States announced its decision to partially lift its decades-old embargo on providing lethal military support to Vietnam, to help improve its maritime security. The arms embargo was a major stumbling block on the American side of the road to closer U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Another obstacle on the Vietnamese side was removed when Tran Dai Quang visited Washington this year. Talking with his U.S. interlocutors, Quang affirmed that Hanoi would allow the U.S. Peace Corps to operate in Vietnam. This marked a significant change in the communist regime’s attitude toward its ideological challenger. Five years ago, in a major policy document by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, Vietnam’s ideological gatekeepers still singled out the Peace Corps as a “hostile force” and an organization specializing in propaganda and subversive activities against the communist regime.
Relations between the United States and communist Vietnam have been slow to normalize. It took two decades after their war’s end to restore diplomatic relations (1995). Another two decades after the restoration of diplomatic relations were needed to fully normalize the relationship. Communist Party chief Trong’s visit to Washington in June will be the final step in this normalization.
While China has been a significant factor that both pulls and pushes U.S.-Vietnam relations, the main forces that have kept Hanoi and Washington from moving closer to each other are ideological and psychological rather than material. After the demise of the Cold War, the strategic interests of Vietnam and the United States converged with both countries’ highest priority in the region being a peaceful and stable environment that is conducive to economic development. Once a revisionist power, Vietnam became a supporter of the status quo endorsed by America. For its part, the United States abandoned its desire to weaken and isolate Hanoi and developed an interest in a strong and prosperous Vietnam. However, each perceived the other as a threat to its very identity. In the United States, the memory of the defeat in the Vietnam War and its self-concept of a champion of freedom provided powerful forces to oppose closer ties with Hanoi. In Vietnam, the desire for regime preservation and the dominance of anti-Western ideology obstructed every step toward friendship with Washington.
Sustained efforts by both Hanoi and Washington played an important role in lowering their threat perceptions of one another. But the decisive factor that in recent years turned the two former foes into friends is the emergence of a common security threat. Beijing’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea has changed the strategic calculus for both Hanoi and Washington. Facing an enormous challenge from China, Vietnam and the United States are now prepared to downplay their ideological disagreements to focus on common strategic interests.
The breakthrough that is opening the door to a close partnership between the United States and Vietnam is actually taking place in increments. It started with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Hanoi in July 2012 and will culminate in Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Washington this summer. While the process is gradual, the change is immense. A decade ago, officials in Hanoi told me that informally their government considered China its strategic ally, even if formally it was not. Today, the understanding is that Vietnam’s relation with the United States is a comprehensive partnership in name but a strategic partnership in content.
Alexander L. Vuving is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the Asia-Pacific Center, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.