Forty years after the end of the war and twenty years after President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. embargo on Vietnam – thereby kicking off the ensuing normalization process – the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam is scheduled to visit the United States this week at the official invitation of U.S. President Barack Obama, the first ever such visit by the top leader in Vietnam’s political system. This visit will definitely mark another milestone in the relationship between two former adversaries provided that each side adopts an appropriate reading of what it means. That requires avoiding the extremes of either a dismissive view of the trip as a purely symbolic bilateral event or a simplistic one that it represents a case of “taking sides”.
There is little doubt that this is a milestone in the evolution of a bilateral relationship that could well have stalled due to its particular background and nature. Over the past two decades however, it has instead bloomed and expanded in a whole array of areas, including business and trade, education, science and technology, security and defense consultations on international and regional matters of common interest, and other political dialogues on mutually sensitive issues such as human rights and Agent Orange. The people to people contacts and exchanges, including through tourism and development projects often involving second generation Vietnamese Americans, as well as ever rising numbers of young Vietnamese coming to the United States for their higher education, provide a rich human dimension to the bilateral ties. It is not an overstatement to consider this relationship as having come of age.
At the same time, we need to put this visit in the broader context of Vietnam’s diplomacy since the early 1990s. Since then, Hanoi has sought broad engagement with all powers and countries, active international and regional integration together with the universally applicable principle of priority for the national interest. Such a foreign policy is more relevant than ever today. Observers will recognize that Vietnam’s diplomacy has been consistently committed to balance and realism: flexible balance in its relations with the different major powers near and far; and a realistic recognition that there needs to be mutual interest or give and take for relations among nations to be healthy and sustainable. Vietnam also understands that the new power realities in the world in general and the Asia-Pacific in particular require the employment of both the soft power of diplomacy and the hard power of economic and military muscle. In this way, Vietnam can leave its options open.
The significance and impact of the two countries’ growing mutual engagement is not limited to the bilateral dimension. It inscribes itself in a changed and changing world order which is now multipolar and more interdependent than ever, and where international relations are a complex interrelated web of political-diplomatic, security and economic realities and interests. One can look at Vietnam’s proactive participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations from such a perspective. One can also understand that Vietnam reserves its sovereign right to design its foreign policy priorities based on the guiding principle of flexible balance and realism in the pursuit of its national interest. This explains Vietnam’s deliberate buildup of an array of positive, strong ties with all important players – both nationally and multilaterally; both at the global and regional levels.
The United States reengages Asia against a changed regional configuration fraught with challenges to security and stability in the South China Sea/East Sea – the Mediterranean of East Asia where more than half of the world commercial maritime transport transits. With the reality of China’s rise in the region and given her recent unilateral disruptive actions in that neuralgic maritime space, other major powers as well as countries most directly concerned, including Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are working to ensure that China plays by the commonly accepted rules of international law and practice. This would give her legitimate rise the much needed mantle of common acceptance by the rest of the region and the world.
In the early post-Cold War years, the United States, the world’s sole superpower, was declaring in front of the world assembly at the United Nations that “we shall act multilaterally when we can, and unilaterally if we must”. Today the options are solely bilateral and multilateral. U.S.-Vietnam relations in this context adopt both channels, that of a comprehensive partnership bilaterally, and of consistent partnership within and through the regional channel of ASEAN multilaterally. The two channels reinforce each other. The maturing of Vietnam’s relationship with the US since normalization twenty years ago has gone in parallel and synergy with Vietnam’s joining ASEAN in 1995 and steadily growing into a seasoned, responsible and reliable pro-active member of the regional organization.
In other words, there emerges a clear convergence of interests and modalities between the two countries when it comes to building the peaceful, secure and stable environment in the South China Sea/East Sea which is a prerequisite for freedom and safety of navigation in the interest of all concerned, large and small, near and far. Looking ahead, the relationship will have to be based on mutual respect and benefit (cf. the specifics of the TPP negotiations), on trust and consistency to be perseveringly strengthened, and on pragmatic and deft collaboration, particularly at the international and regional level.
Taking both a long view of history and a broad view of the new world and regional context, the U.S.-Vietnam postwar relationship can be labeled as exemplary and mature insofar as both sides have shown a common resolve and ability to overcome the past and look to the future, which, given the painful and difficult legacy of the war, could not be taken for granted. This relationship will receive a dual blessing at the highest level when Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong is hosted in the White House soon and if and when President Barack Obama visits Hanoi before the end of his second term.
The U.S.-Vietnam relationship holds great promise in several areas. One such area relates to the Vietnamese-American community, who make us proud with the way they have swiftly and successfully integrated and contributed in diverse positive ways to American society. Today quite a few members of that community, especially from the second generation, are building bridges of understanding with Vietnam and making their own contribution to Vietnam’s economy, education and social development. We have faith in the dynamism and powerful aspirations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American youth as drivers of the relationship into the future. They underscore the point that the U.S.-Vietnam relationship today and tomorrow holds more substance and significance than meets the eye.
Ton Nu Thi Ninh is a former Ambassador of Vietnam to the EU and former Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Vietnam National Assembly.