Relations between the United States and Vietnam may be improving, in part because the two countries need each other. The United States wants to have more influence as part of its “Asian pivot.” And Vietnam wants to become less dependent on its powerful neighbor China.
Last month, two senior American senators visited the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. Bob Corker is the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the Senate is considering lifting the ban on the sale of lethal, or deadly, weapons to Vietnam. Senator John McCain said there is support for the ban to end -- at least in part -- possibly as soon as this month.
Senator McCain and other American officials had until recently opposed ending the ban because of what they considered Vietnam’s poor human rights record. Mr. McCain said he was pleased that Vietnam had recently signed the Convention Against Torture, and was permitting more religious centers to open. But he said the country had more work to do to ensure human rights were respected.
Senator McCain was held as a prisoner of war for almost six years during the war in Vietnam.
Jonathan London is a professor at City University in Hong Kong and a Vietnam expert. He says if the ban is lifted, it would, in his words, “symbolize a real change in the two countries’ relations.”
“Vietnam stands to gain considerably from U.S. intelligence and U.S. expertise and know-how with respect to maritime affairs.”
U.S. and Vietnam to increase military cooperation
The top American military officer was also in Vietnam in August. It was the first visit to Vietnam by a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1971. General Martin Dempsey was in Vietnam for four days. The Vietnamese Defense Ministry said the two countries would increase cooperation between their military forces, including in maritime security.
The United States and Vietnam agreed to formal relations in 1995. But military cooperation has been limited because of the ban on the sale of lethal U.S. weapons. The ban has been in place since the war in Vietnam ended in 1975.
Rodger Baker is the vice-president of Asia-Pacific analysis at Stratfor, which describes itself as “a geopolitical intelligence firm that provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world.”
In a recent online column about improving relations between the two countries, Mr. Baker said Vietnamese leaders blame the ban for relations not being closer.
“One of the things that the change in the arms regulations would do would be a way to reassure Vietnam, reassure the Vietnamese leadership -- at least in part -- about a slightly stronger commitment or reliability of the United States in this new relationship.”
Mr. Baker told VOA that while Vietnam wants closer ties with the United States, it must consider what that might do to its relations with China.
“Vietnam wants better relations with the United States, but at the same time Vietnam is very, very cautious about the implications of those relations on how they manage a much-closer nation, being China.”
Vietnam aims for stable relationship with China
Carl Thayer is a professor at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. He has written hundreds of books and reports about Vietnam. He says Vietnam’s leaders are meeting with officials of the United States and other countries as a way to show that they are not completely dependent upon China.
“China keeps warning them about moving too close to the U.S., but that doesn’t stop them from working towards Japan, which they’ve already done, and India if, if India is willing to, to play the game.”
Still, Vietnam understands China’s power in the area. A top official of Vietnam’s Communist Party recently traveled to China, where he met with the country’s President Xi Jinping. Relations between the two countries have been tense since May. That was when China moved an oil-drilling platform into areas of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. The platform was withdrawn from those waters in July. But before that happened there were deadly anti-China riots in several industrial zones in Vietnam.
A Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman spoke to reporters after the meeting between the Chinese president and the Vietnamese official. The spokesman said Vietnam and China would continue to try to move relations in the direction of, in his words, “stable development.” He said the two countries would continue to improve cooperation in diplomacy, defense, security, economy, trade, law and humanitarian issues.
Still, as Mr. Baker from Stratfor notes, the oil-rig incident showed Vietnamese leaders that China is prepared to act in its own interest even if that means harming Vietnam.
“Vietnam as a nation is always somewhat at risk from, from its much-larger neighbor China. And when China acts assertively in the maritime sphere, that threatens Vietnam as a nation. And that’s where Vietnam starts to look out to the United States, starts to look out to Japan, starts to look out to Australia and says ‘Maybe we really do need to work with some of these countries -- not necessarily to become completely pro-western or fundamentally change how we are, but certainly to balance what we’re doing with China.’ But the risk of reaching out to those Western countries is that those countries usually require and demand certain changes in the internal political dynamics and that can threaten the centrality of the party.”
Mr. Baker says because of the oil-rig incident, Vietnamese leaders who believe the country should have better relations with Western nations have gained power within the government.
“Those who have seen the potential strength of stronger ties with the West have certainly gained an element of influence within Vietnam because of what the Chinese have done with this oil rig.”
But he says Vietnam will always remain close to China
I’m Christopher Cruise.
VOA’s Christopher Cruise reported this story for Learning English from Washington. Correspondent Marianne Brown contributed some material from Hanoi. We also used material from Bloomberg News. Hai Do edited the story.
Words in the News
dependent/depend - v., to need help and support
support - v., to carry the weight of; to hold up or in position; to agree with others and help them reach a goal; to approve
limited/limit - v., to restrict to a number or amount; n., the greatest amount or number permitted
relations - n., understandings or ties between nations; members of the same family; people connected by marriage or family ties
incident - n., an event or something that happens