Suspicion still haunts US-Vietnam ties

Tension in the South China Sea has spurred closer ties between Hanoi and Washington

Tension in the South China Sea has spurred closer ties between Hanoi and Washington

Vietnamese leaders continue to harbour deep suspicions of US intentions despite recent improvements in relations, according to a new report published by the University of Sydney.

It concludes that trading and investment ties will continue to improve, especially if the TPP trade agreement is ratified, but Vietnam remains extremely wary of closer political and military bonds with the US, and the relationship will remain limited by suspicion.

The report – entitled Vietnam and the United States: An Emerging Security partnership – says relations have warmed considerably in recent months, as Hanoi seeks to balance its ties with an increasingly assertive China.

But Vietnamese leaders still see “subversive intent” in US policy.

Officials entrenched in the defence, security and Communist Party establishments are seen as most wary of too close a relationship with the US.

Human rights record

The report identifies continuing US sanctions that block the sale of many lethal military items to Vietnam as a key obstacle.

“(The sanctions) are a constant reminder of Washington’s critique of Vietnam’s human rights record and its mode of government. It groups Vietnam with Syria and North Korea. Hanoi seeks an end to the embargo mainly because it wants to be regarded as a ‘normal’ country,” says the report, authored by Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

The signing of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) with the United States and ten other countries in October was a landmark in the two decade old reconciliation process between Hanoi and Washington.

Vietnam has most to gain from the accord, should it be ratified by the US Congress, as it’s expected to generate a surge of cheap Vietnamese exports to lucrative markets, and a major boost in inward investment.

Bitter pill

Even hardliners in the Communist Party are thought to have come around to the TPP, given the importance of GDP growth as a key pillar of the party’s legitimacy.

However, Hayton points out that there are still signs of misgivings in Hanoi.

“(The TPP) will pose major threats to state owned enterprises and the party controlled trade union system. Foreign policy analysts in Hanoi described TPP as a bitter pill that will push the party into further economic and social reforms.”

The visit by party boss, Trong, to the White House was seen as a landmark in relations.

The visit by party boss, Trong, to the White House was seen as a landmark in relations.

Vietnam has committed to allow free and independent trade unions, and to allow US officials to sit on a bilateral board that will monitor implementation.

For all the mistrust, however, the report acknowledges that relations between the two countries have advanced further, and more rapidly, than many would have thought possible.

Decisive shift

It says that Vietnam has tended in the past to use the possibility of closer ties with Washington merely as a tool to leverage independence from China.

With the TPP, and tension in the South China Sea, there may now be the possibility of a decisive shift towards genuine balancing between Beijing and Washington.

Hayton points to the visit to Washington in July of the CPV General-Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and his call to build political trust and to increase high level exchanges between the two governments, and political parties.

In June, the defence ministers of Vietnam and the US signed a joint vision statement, which reaffirmed that each would respect the other’s political system.

Degree of suspicion

The report concludes that domestic priorities in Vietnam will be the key to further progress, as well as how aggressively China pursues its claims in the South China Sea, and how sensitively Washington manages the emerging relationship with Hanoi.

But limits remain on how close the two can get.

Vietnam remains extremely wary of getting enmeshed too deeply in Washington’s broader security agenda in the western Pacific.

And the Secretary of State, John Kerry, made clear on a visit to Vietnam in August that the US would continue to defend basic principles, including respect for human rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech.

Hayton says that as long as the Communist Party retains its monopoly of power in Vietnam “US-Vietnam ties will always be characterised by a degree of suspicion that does not hamper the Vietnamese leadership’s links with Russia, India, or even China.”