The US and Vietnam are the strangest bedfellows in the Asia Pacific. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam received wide attention, particularly because of the lifting of the embargo on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. The ban was eventually expected to ease but it seems to have happened much sooner. This appears to be one of the significant measures undertaken within the so-called US ‘rebalance’. Both the presidents have stated - Obama more clearly - that the elevated bilateral ties are not aimed against Beijing. At the same time, however, both have also expressed concern regarding developments in the South China Sea and freedom of navigation. The US ‘rebalancing’ is tangible through this visit, along with other recent US visits and initiatives in the region.
The US and Vietnam have been gradually striving to normalise their relationship. The process started after the end of the Cold War and the landmark visit to Vietnam in 2000 by then President Bill Clinton with the aim of reconciliation. Just like Clinton’s, Obama’s Vietnam trip has happened towards the end of his presidency. Sixteen years since Clinton’s historic visit, a lot has changed between the former enemies. Most of the present Vietnamese population was born after the war, and the negative psychological cloud of the war has passed. The enthusiastic welcome that Obama received from the civilian community is an indicator of the changing times.
The US-Vietnam joint statement specifies their commitment to respecting their “respective political systems.” This could be a reference to how many in Vietnam see the US’ insistence on human rights and political freedom as an attempt to destabilise the communist regime. Those specific words in the joint statement should therefore help assure the Vietnamese regime and sceptics of US-Vietnam rapprochement. It also indicates a mutual understanding between the two - that the Vietnamese cannot be pushed against the wall over the issue of human rights. Both are different political systems are bound to have differing perspectives regarding governance. Indeed, President Obama admitted that both sides have differences, which may indicate that it would not be as contentious an issue in bilateral relations as before.
Since the end of the Cold War, Vietnam has recalibrated its foreign policy to establish relations with the Western world. Since its domestic restructuring programme of the ‘90s called Doi Moi, and after joining the WTO in 2007, Vietnam’s economy attracted investments from across the spectrum. The US today is the seventh largest investor in Vietnam, and in the words of Obama, “…the single largest market for Vietnam’s exports.” Vietnam is also a part of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which could potentially challenge Chinese economic preponderance in Southeast Asia. In recent years, Vietnam has been consciously trying to diversify its FDI sources so as to reduce reliance on any one country.
Obama’s visit dropped other goodies in the Vietnamese kitty. A Fulbright University will be set up with the aim of making it a world-class university in Vietnam. That scores brownie points with the youth, and serves as a soft power instrument to iron out remaining historical tensions. The US and Vietnam also expanded the civil nuclear partnership that would aid the energy starved, rapidly industrialising, Vietnam. A joint commission on civil nuclear cooperation will be set up to implement the 123 Agreement.
The highlight of the visit is the lifting of sale of lethal arms to Vietnam. It is a bold move. The ban on non-lethal weapons was lifted in 2013. Now that the embargo is completely done away with Vietnam can purchase hardware as per its requirements and from wider sources. Vietnam has been modernising its military over the past few years, and particularly building its navy towards sea denial capabilities. In the process, it has largely relied on traditional security partners such as Russia and India, but has gradually turned to Western suppliers also. The US has been strengthening Vietnam’s coast guard. A quid pro quo, one can imagine, is the possibility of greater US access to the strategic Cam Ranh Bay in the future. Importantly, the US is already taking advantage of the commercial facilities at the Bay.
The lifting of the arms embargo is significant for another reason. There have been doubts over US’ commitment to Southeast Asia within the region. In his joint press conference with President Quang, Obama reiterated US’ priority to the Asia-Pacific, and how its comprehensive relations with Vietnam are in sync with its broader strategy.
In 2015, the Pentagon launched the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) for Southeast Asia. The MSI, a part of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Asia Pacific strategy, aims at improving maritime domain awareness, enhancing capabilities, and creating “strong, independent partners in the region.” Accordingly, the plans for Vietnam include assistance in vessel modernisation, maritime patrol aircraft, support for C3 systems in search and rescue operations, and training, although the funds for Vietnam are only US$2 million whereas Philippines gets US$41 million. The ‘rebalancing’ to Asia, the MSI and the lifting of the embargo - it all adds up. The course is set, although it is a long way yet for bilateral security cooperation. Nonetheless, the increasing ease between US and Vietnam, which transcends history and ideology, reflects the realpolitik of Asia Pacific security. Because there are only permanent interests.