Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Remarks by Professor Nguyen Manh Hung, “U.S.-Vietnam Relations: Where we have been and where are we going next”

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Remarks by Professor Nguyen Manh Hung, George Mason University
At the Conference on
“U.S.-Vietnam Relations: Where we have been and where are we going next”
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Washington, DC
September 14, 2010



Good morning, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like, first, to thank the organizers, especially Murray Hiebert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Senator James Webb for inviting and encouraging me to participate in this conference commemorating the 15th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations. It is a pleasure and privilege to contribute my thought at this critical juncture in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

My comments will seek to address two questions. One, what are the major characteristics of U.S.-Vietnam relations since the end of the Vietnam War? Two, what are the factors and forces that may affect the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations?

PATTERNS OF U.S.-VIETNAM RELATIONS


United States-Vietnam relations in the past thirty-five years have three major characteristics:

1. Slow but steady progress in a positive direction, from cold to warm, from hostile to friendly, from enmity to partnership.

2. Bilateral relations proceed in stages. First was normalization of diplomatic relations which took place in 1995. It was followed by normalization of trade relations in 2006 when the U.S. Congress granted Vietnam permanent normal trade relations status (PNTR). Improvement of military relations came last beginning with the first visit to the United States in November 2003 of Vietnam’s highest military leader, Minister of Defense General Pham Van Tra, which eventually reached its highest point when the first U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue met in Hanoi in August 2010.

3. Improvements or turning points in bilateral relations mostly took place after Vietnam took steps to overcome its own reluctance to move forward. Serious talks on normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries only began when Vietnam decided to withdraw troops from Cambodia in 1989 and took steps to fulfill the preconditions set by the United States (troops withdrawal, peace agreement, election then formation of a coalition government in Cambodia). Normalization of trade was only possible after Vietnamese leaders had been able to make up their mind to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the United States in 2000 after their failure to do so a year earlier. This decision opened the door for them to join the World Trade Organization and to be accorded PNTR status. Similarly, in the realm of military relations, Vietnam’s reluctance to move forward was clearly demonstrated by its decision to postpone several times the visit to Hanoi of U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen until March 2000. One has to wait for three more years before Vietnam decided to send its highest-ranking military leader to the United States in 2003.

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS

Once a hurdle in the sensitive realm of security relations had been overcome, progresses moved rapidly. There are a number of key developments marking progresses in bilateral relations since 2003.

1. The first development was the visit of Minister of Defense Pham Van Tra, the top Vietnamese military leader to visit the US for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War. During his visit, Tra made clear that Vietnam wanted to establish “a framework for stable and long-term partnership” with the United States.

2. The second turning point came with the official visit to the United States of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in June 2005 to mark the 10th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Khai was the first top Vietnamese communist leader to visit the United States and was received by the U.S. President at the White House. Khai pledged to improve religious freedom in Vietnam and agreed to send Vietnamese military officers to the United States to study language and medical services. In return, Bush pledged to support Vietnam’s accession to the WTO and promised to visit Vietnam during the APEC Summit in 2006. Khai’s visit was followed by a flurry of visits to Vietnam of U.S. business leaders, trade officials and military leaders. When Donald Rumsfeld visited Hanoi in 2006, he agreed with his counterpart to “increase military exchanges on all levels.”

3. The visit of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to the United States in June 2008 marked the third turning point. In a joint statement the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to “promoting and securing fundamental human rights and liberties,” and endorsed the creation of “new political-military and policy planning talks, which will allow for more frequent and in-depth discussions on security and strategic issues.” President Bush reiterated the U.S. government’s “support for Vietnam’s national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” Four months later, in October 2008, the first political-military dialogue took place in Hanoi.

4. The visit of Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh to the United States in December 2009 marked the fourth turning point. If the previous visit of General Tra cleared the way for military relations, the visit of General Phung Quang Thanh was aimed at strengthening the relations between the two militaries. During his visit, they talked about the possibility of U.S. arms sale to Vietnam and U.S. participation in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) +1 hosted by Vietnam in 2010.


5. The fifth turning point was marked by a number of events: the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore where Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared on June 5, 2010 that the South China Sea is an “area of growing concern” and warned against “any effort to intimidate U.S. or those of any nation engaged in legitimate economic activity”; the political-security-military dialogue between the US and Vietnam in Hanoi on June 8, 2010 where for the first time the situation in the South China Sea was put on the agenda; Secretary Hillary Clinton’s assertion at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi July 23, 2010 that “The United States has a ‘national interest’ in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea," and stated US support for “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion;” and the first high-level defense policy dialogue in Hanoi on August 17 where “impressions” of Chinese military modernization were shared. This series of events have brought U.S.-Vietnam relations to a new and critical phase.

INFLUENCING FACTORS

Looking ahead, the future of U.S-Vietnam relations depends on a number of factors: the China factor, U.S. view of Vietnam’s strategic importance, Vietnam’s view of U.S. capability and intention, the value factor, and relations between Vietnam and Vietnamese-Americans.

The China Factor

For strategic reasons, China does not want to see a close alliance between Vietnam and the U.S. taking shape close to its southern borders. Neither the United States nor Vietnam wishes to antagonize China unnecessarily. As the reigning superpower, the U.S. has more options than Vietnam. If good relation with China is desirable for the United States, for Vietnam it is a necessity. Being a small country bordering a huge neighbor with a complex history of relationship, in conducting relations with the United States, Vietnam must make difficult choices between the need to have good neighborly relations with China, on the one hand, and the imperative of affirming its sovereign right to pursue diplomatic relations with other countries to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the other hand.

If the need to pay attention to Chinese sensitivity may pose an obstacle or slow down the process of rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States, especially in the military/security field, then excessive Chinese demands and aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea in the last few years has led to a convergence of security interests between Vietnam and the United States. Both countries are concerned over Chinese military modernization program which increases Chinese capability to impose its will in the South China Sea disputes.

Territorial conflicts both at sea and on land between Vietnam and China have been going on for many years, but the drawing a U-shaped line claiming for China eighty percent of the South China Sea encroaches upon Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and seabed. In addition, China’s unilateral moratorium on fishing in disputed sea areas and its arrests and mistreatment of Vietnamese fishermen forced Vietnam to respond. Vietnamese government has attempted to internationalize the issue, bought new weapons to improve its defense capability, and launched a campaign to strengthen the determination of the military to protect “every inch of the nation’s land and sea territories.”

For the United States, China’s claims are excessive and not in conformity with international law. The United “does not share and cannot understand Chinese interpretation of the law of the sea.” It opposed to Chinese attempt to intimidate American companies working in the area. If China is able to enforce its claims, the South China Sea will become a Chinese lake, obstructing freedom of navigation, claims that are unacceptable for a global maritime power such as the United States.

China’s behavior, thus, has brought about a convergence of strategic interests between the United States and Vietnam and an improvement in military cooperation between the two countries. What comes next depends on the assessment of each country of the other country’s capability and intention.

Vietnam in U.S. strategic perspective


After the Vietnam War, and especially after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, the U.S. viewed Vietnam as an instrument of Soviet expansionism in Southeast Asia. It joined forces with China and ASEAN to confront Vietnam in Cambodia. However, when Vietnam reformed its economy, changed its foreign policy, and accelerated its integration into the ASEAN regional group, and especially since the normalization of relations between the two countries, U.S. view of Vietnam has changed.

In the U.S.-Vietnam-China triangle, the U.S. is much more comfortable with Vietnam. While the United States needs Chinese cooperation to deal with a number of important global issues, such as stopping the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, and combating global warming, etc… the U.S. still regards China as a potential rival. While China may become a threat to U.S. security and its global position, Vietnam poses no such a threat to the U.S. Not only there is no strategic conflict between the United States and Vietnam but, in the U.S. perspective, Vietnam is an important force contributing to the emerging security order in Asia and the Pacific. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Cultural Affairs referred to the strengthening of partnership with Vietnam as “a key pillar of our presence in this [Pacific] region and of our involvement in multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific are.” This positive view of Vietnam encourages the U.S. to push for closer relations between the two countries. So far the U.S. desire to strengthen relations with Vietnam varies in inverse proportion to the aggressive behaviors of China and in positive proportion to the determination and capability of Vietnam to play an independent role in Asia.

Vietnam’s perception of U.S. intention

Past hostilities resulting from two wars –the Vietnam War and the Cambodian War—and Vietnamese perception of the causes of the collapse of European communism lead Vietnamese leaders to suspect that the U.S. wants to overthrow the remaining communist regimes, including that of Vietnam. Party resolutions, media analyses, and official statements repeatedly refer to the danger of “peaceful evolution” and plots to “abuse democratic freedom” of “hostile forces” to overthrow the regime.

The Vietnamese government views U.S. promotion of democracy and pressure on human rights as a means to undermine the communist regime. This concern may be justified but does not necessarily reflect U.S. strategic interest. While the United States would like to see Vietnam to become more liberal and more democratic, it has no plans to overthrow the government of Vietnam. The United States wants a strong, stable, and independent Vietnam. A violent change of government in Vietnam does not serve U.S. strategic interest, for it would create a vacuum which is likely to be filled by forces hostile to the U.S.

As Vietnam moves closer to the United States, it also has to be wary about the possibility of becoming a pawn to be sacrificed on the altar of big power politics, just as the case of North Vietnam in 1954 and South Vietnam in 1973. So long as this mistrust of, and uncertainty about, U.S. commitment remain, U.S.-Vietnam relations will not reach a state of comfort as relations between the U.S. and many of its Asian partners.

The value factor

It is possible to have beneficial cooperation and even a temporary alliance between countries of different or opposing political systems, but it is impossible to have a stable, long-term cooperative relationship and strong bonds between them. Because of different value systems of the United States and Vietnam, the human rights issue has affected and will continue to affect the direction of US-Vietnam relations. It can draw them closer or it may cause conflict between the two countries.

The issue of human rights occupies a significant place in U.S.-Vietnam relations for several reasons. First, it reflects the core belief of the American people. Second, Vietnam’s economic and strategic importance to the United States is not yet at the point that it could overwhelm human rights considerations. Third, many Americans who had fought in the Vietnam War would like to see progress on human rights and democracy in Vietnam so that their sacrifices and those of their fallen comrades would not have been wasted. Senator McCain, a Vietnam veteran and strong advocate of U.S.-Vietnam relations, spoke for them when he said last July that he hoped that one day Vietnam would allow “peaceful dissent” and “rule by the consent of the governed” and that “our current partnership of common interests will ultimately become a partnership of common values.” Fourth, democracy and respect for human rights are the prevailing trend of our time; Vietnamese authorities themselves have pledged to build a “strong and prosperous country and a just, democratic, and civilized society.” There is no difference, in principle, in the ultimate aspirations of both peoples, only difference in interpretations. Finally, concern over human rights has been institutionalized in U.S. politics. Congress has established the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. The State Department has created a position of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Annual Report on Human Rights by the U.S. State Department is an obligation mandated by Congress. The US embassy in Vietnam has no choice but supplying their part of the annual report and work hard with Vietnamese authorities to show progress on the issue.

Further improvement in U.S.-Vietnam relations depends on how the human rights issue is managed by both sides and, more importantly, on Vietnam’s own initiative on political reform.

Relations between Vietnam and Vietnamese-Americans

Vietnamese-Americans can exercise either a positive or a negative influence on U.S.-Vietnam relations. It all depends, however, on the relationship of the Vietnamese community in the U.S. and the government of Vietnam.

Vietnamese looks upon the community as a source of finance (money sent home and tourism), a potential pool of experts, and would like to turn them into a force lobbying for Vietnam in the United States.

The emergence of a new generations of Vietnamese, both at home and abroad, who carry no baggage of the war and contact and, over time, exchange between Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese at home as well as those studying in the United States (including government officials) will bring about better mutual understanding, narrow the perception gap among them, and foster cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. But organized efforts by Vietnamese-American groups to highlight human rights violations and promote democracy in Vietnam has put Vietnam in a bad light and caused tension in the bilateral relations. Looked at the issue from a different angle, it can be argued that constructive criticism of human rights violations may have a salutary effect. First, human rights advocates reflect the values and interest of the United States. Second, improvement of human rights is not only desirable for the people of Vietnam but will also bring the two countries and peoples closer in their political values; and political compatibility is a solid foundation for stable and friendly relationship.

In recent years, the Vietnamese government has made efforts to reach out to the overseas Vietnamese, particularly those in the United States, through the policy of “national reconciliation.” Resolution 36 of the Politburo issued on March 26, 2004 considered overseas Vietnamese “an inseparable part and a source of strength of the whole Vietnamese nation; they are an important factor contributing to the improvement of cooperative and friendly relationship between our country and other countries.” Steps were taken to make it easier for overseas Vietnamese to buy houses in Vietnam, to visit the country, and to work there. They are small steps reflecting privileges accorded by the government to overseas Vietnamese but they fail to address the need of genuine reconciliation based on mutual respect.

Practically every family in South Vietnam had a least a member in the military and/or the government. Many had members who fought on both sides of the conflict. No one wants their parents be labeled “traitors” of the country. Senator Webb in his remarks at the Symposium to commemorate the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States in Hanoi last July reminded his audience that it is important to recognize that “there were strongly held views that became in very serious conflict with other strongly held views, both here in Vietnam and abroad” and suggested that “we must respect that a wide variety of views were sincerely held by well-meaning people across the spectrum.”

For genuine national reconciliation to take place, a “peace of the braves” among former Vietnamese combatants must be achieved. This cannot happen so long as history books, the media and official statements misrepresent the Vietnam War as a war between the United States and the Vietnamese people where Southern soldiers and civilians were pictured as American lackeys and unpatriotic, not as decent men and women who fought for their cause and/or out of a sense of duty.

In the last five years, call for understanding of, and respect for, the defeated, has begun to be heard inside Vietnam, mostly from former government officials.

In 2005, the late Prime Minister of Vietnam Vo Van Kiet called for a “new attitude,” reminding everyone that the wounds of war were “shared wounds of the entire nation,” that “history forced many families in the South to have their loved ones on both sides of the conflict,” and suggested that the country should “light an incense stick” to pray for the souls of all the soldiers—North and South- for they were all “children of Mother Vietnam.”

Five years later, in 2010, a North Vietnamese general, General Nguyen Trong Vinh, former Vietnamese ambassador to China and alternative member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in an interview with Nguoi Viet newspaper (August 30, 2010), declared, the “blood shed by [South Vietnamese soldiers in the naval battle against the Chinese at Hoang Sa in 1974] was blood shed for the fatherland, they must be honored and considered equal to fallen soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese government has taken two encouraging decisions. One is to support and facilitate the “Returning War Casualties” project of the Houston-based MIA/POW which seeks to search for and rebury the remains of former reeducation inmates who died in camps. Second is to remove military units from the Binh An cemetery, the former burial place for the soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Repulic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the equivalent of the Arlington Cemetery. Overseas Vietnamese and those in the United States are watching to see whether the cemetery will be removed for commercial development, kept under this present condition, or preserving it as a historical site to start the healing process. These two issues, if handled properly, could be building blocks for better relations between Vietnam and Vietnamese-Americans.

National reconciliation between Vietnamese is a historical duty and can have a huge political impact. It may transform the opposition of Vietnamese overseas communities into powerful lobbying groups in favor of Vietnam in practically every country in the world, and it certainly will cement the relationship between the United States and Vietnam.


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