The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. These two sayings are apt to describe the fast-growing relationship between the US and Vietnam.
Just four decades ago, the US and Vietnam were bitter enemies during the deadly Vietnam War in which three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed. Now that is all in the past.
Today they are best friends. Putting aside all diplomatic protocols, US President Barack Obama hosted Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong at the White House on Tuesday (July 7).
Trong was invited by US Secretary of State John Kerry. There were protocol issues as the US administration had no counterpart to Trong. Vietnam’s powerful leader Trong discussed with American leaders ways and means to build a mutually beneficial strong strategic partnership between the two countries.
Trong was the first Vietnamese Communist Party chief to visit Washington, a significant milestone for both countries. Later in the year, most likely in December, President Obama will visit Hanoi to give a new strategic dimension to the bilateral relationship.
During his historic visit, Trong meet leaders of both the Democrat and the Republican parties to cement a friendship between the three political parties.
As part of its plan to deepen comprehensive and strategic partnerships with important countries, Vietnam sees the US as an important strategic partner from the economic and geopolitical point of view. The US sees strategic common ground in Vietnam and also a possible bulwark against China under its so-called pivot or rebalancing toward Asia.
Trong’s visit came at a critical moment in Vietnam’s history. First, both countries are celebrating this year the 20th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations. Second, the Vietnamese Communist Party will be holding its 12th party congress next year to elect a new party leadership and design the country’s course for the decades to come.
After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, no one imagined that one day Vietnam and the US would make a rapprochement. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. But today, the Vietnamese have forgotten the bloody past and openly welcome Americans. Today, one can spot Starbucks, McDonalds and CFC outlets in major Vietnamese towns and cities.
A close look at the normalization of diplomatic ties between Vietnam and the US reveals that the entente began in 1994 when the US lifted the embargo against Vietnam. The next year, in 1995, the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties.
After Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007, economic relations between the two countries entered into a new phase. During the last five years, the trade between the two countries has more than doubled, surging from US$14.2 billion in 2010 to $36.30 billion in 2014. Vietnam is today ASEAN’s biggest exporter to the US, according to the US Census Bureau data, with $30.58 billion of exports last year. The US is Vietnam’s second-biggest trading partner after China, while Vietnam is the US’ fourth-biggest trading partner in ASEAN.
“Economic trade ties continue to stay at the heart of bilateral relations, serving both as the cornerstone of, and an engine for, the overall relationship,” Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said during his historic visit to Washington in 2013.
The US is the seventh-biggest foreign investor in Vietnam. American companies — Ford, Apple, Intel and General Electrics — have invested more than $11 billion in Vietnam, especially in the booming manufacturing sector. American firm Intel built a $1 billion wafer testing plant in the dynamic Ho Chi Minh City.
The nature of Vietnam’s relationship with the US was changed completely when the two countries signed a historic Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, one rung down from a strategic partnership, in 2013.
Under the auspices of this Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, Vietnam and the US agreed to bolster cooperation in nine core areas: politics, diplomacy, economy, trade, science and technology, education and training, the environment, health and humanitarian cooperation.
The US has also been helping Vietnam deal with victims of Agent Orange/dioxine, demining and tracing missing persons in action.
The US welcomed the progressive new Vietnamese Constitution that came into effect in 2013. This constitution protects and respects the human rights of the Vietnamese people.
Of late, both countries have been focusing on enhancing defense cooperation. Last year, the US lifted partially the embargo on lethal weapons, paving the way for Vietnam to access American weapons.
Washington has spent more than $65 million to clean up an airport, damaged during the war, in central Vietnam.
In March 2015, Vietnamese Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang visited the US and met with several key senior officials and senators, including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran.
During his visit, Quang discussed possible cooperation in law enforcement, information sharing, transnational threats, human trafficking, intellectual property rights, maritime affairs and cyber security. Quang also inked a letter of agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding the transfer of DNA testing software.
Both the US and Vietnam are set to join the ambitious Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact this year. After acceding to the TPP, bilateral trade between the US and Vietnam could easily reach $100 billion in two to three years. More and more investment will pour into Vietnam , not only from the US but also from other TPP member countries. Obama is planning to invite trade ministers of all 12 would be members of the TPP to the US by end of this month to resolve differences and reach an agreement.
Vietnam may strengthen further its ties with the US and become a strategic partner, but it is unlikely to become an ally of the US, like the Philippines or Japan, because of its three-prong “No” defense policy: No military alliances, no foreign military presence and no relationship with one country to be used against a third country.
Even without a formal alliance, through, it is certain that the growing strategic ties between Vietnam and the US are not only good for Vietnam, but also for regional stability and peace within Southeast Asia.