Vietnam-US relations: 25-year testament to realpolitik success

By Phuong Vu   July 10, 2020 | 07:01 pm PT
Vietnam-US relations: 25-year testament to realpolitik success
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and U.S. President Donald Trump are greeted at the Government Office in Hanoi, February 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
Vietnam and the U.S. managed to overcome their past animosity to normalize relations in 1995. Once bitter foes, they have become strategic partners since.

When President Bill Clinton announced on July 11, 1995 the normalization of relations with Vietnam, Vietnam War veteran and U.S. Senator John McCain praised Clinton for an "act that required some courage."

It was seen as a political gamble then, and it had not come easy. The wounds of the Vietnam War and its aftermath were still fresh on both sides, but the healing process had to begin. Protracted negotiations bore sweet fruit 25 years ago today.

But the seeds of rapprochement were sown in 1977 and 1978, two years after President Gerald R. Ford had imposed a trade and investment embargo against Vietnam in May 1975. The Jimmy Carter administration decided, on May 4, 1977, to allow Vietnam its legitimate right to be part of the United Nations.

The negotiations to normalize ties got stuck on disagreements over war compensation, the search for prisoners of wars (POWs) and those classified as missing in action (MIA).

In September 1990, former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach met his counterpart James Baker in New York, marking the first official high-level meeting between the two governments since the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 to end the Vietnam War. The two former foreign ministers agreed to draw up a roadmap to normalize ties.

After that meeting, the first official U.S. agency was established in Vietnam.

The POW/MIA office opened in Hanoi in July 1991. However, during the first stage of forging a new relationship proved difficult, with the U.S. maintaining that Vietnam was still imprisoning prisoners after the war.

In November 1991, the U.S. allowed American tourists, veterans, journalists, and businessmen to visit Vietnam. Historic sites and war relics have since become major tourist attractions.

In December 1992, President George H. W. Bush allowed American companies to open their representative offices in Vietnam.

The Vietnam America Trade and Investment Consulting Co. was the first company to open a representative office in Vietnam in April 1993.

In another landmark decision on February 3, 1994, President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. Leading American brands began scouting Vietnam for business opportunities.

In January 1995, the U.S. opened a liaison office at 7 Lang Ha Street, Hanoi, with former Captain James Hall heading it. At the same time, the Vietnam Liaison Office in Washington D.C, led by Le Van Bang, was also inaugurated. This was an important step towards the historic day of July 11, 1995.

‘Consign to the past’

"Let the future be our destination. We have so much work ahead of us. This moment offers us the opportunity to bind up our own wounds. They have resisted time for too long. We can now move on to common ground. Whatever divided us before let us consign to the past," said President Clinton while announcing the historic decision at the White House.

The Vietnamese Prime Minister then, the late Vo Van Kiet, emphasized that the decision was in line with international trends, making a positive contribution to the cause of peace, stability and development in Southeast Asia, as well as the world at large.

In 2000, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. And the relationship picked up pace.

The guided-missile frigate USS Vandegrift docked at HCMC in November 2003, marking the first U.S. Navy ship visit to Vietnam after 1975.

In June 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met with President George W. Bush at the White House in 2005, marking the first Vietnamese leader's visit to the U.S. after the war.

State visits have been a prominent feature of improving Vietnam-U.S. relations. On July 25, 2013, President Truong Tan Sang met with his counterpart U.S. President Barack Obama and struck up a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership deal.

In July 2015, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited the U.S. and met with President Obama at the White House, marking a breakthrough development in bilateral relations. The two leaders issued a joint statement on their vision for Vietnam-U.S. relations.

US President Barack Obama (R) and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. Photo by AFP.

Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. Photo by AFP.

In May 2016, President Obama visited Vietnam and announced the lifting of a three-decade-old U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam. Obama said the move aimed to ensure Hanoi had access to necessary weapons for self-defense. This was a step that showcased the U.S.’s commitment to completely normalize relations with Vietnam, including defense relations.

In November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump paid a state visit to Vietnam after his participation at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in the central city of Da Nang.

In March 2018, U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson planted a historic milestone when it arrived in Da Nang for a five-day visit, marking the biggest U.S. military presence in Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

In February 2019, Vietnam’s international profile and its relationship with the U.S. saw a significant boost with U.S. President Donald Trump returning to the country to attend the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Deep economic ties

After 25 years, the most significant indicator of the strong development of Vietnam-U.S. relations has been economic. The two-way trade turnover increased from $450 million in 1994 to $77 billion in 2019.

The U.S. is now Vietnam’s largest importer and Vietnam remains the U.S.’s fastest-growing market in Southeast Asia. Despite the strong adverse impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, bilateral trade value rose nearly 10 percent in the first half of this year.

Tourism and education have been other prominent areas of Vietnam-U.S. relations. Since 2007, Vietnam has welcomed over 400,000 Americans each year. There are more than 30,000 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. and more than 1,200 Americans studying in Vietnam annually.

U.S. ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said the students are likely to be the perfect cultural ambassadors to foster cooperation and build the future relationship between the two countries.

Another major area of cooperation after normalization was the search for the remains of U.S. soldiers reported missing in action. Over three decades, Vietnam has helped find the remains of 770 American soldiers missing from the Vietnam War. There are an estimated 1,200 Americans still unaccounted for in Vietnam since the war.

Just last Wednesday, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will fund and assist Vietnam in improving its technical ability to identify the remains of soldiers found in its soil under an agreement signed with the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP).

Vietnam and the US are also cooperating in addressing other consequences of war like the cleaning up of Agent Orange hotspots, clearing leftover ordnances and helping UXO victims.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said an agreement with imminent conclusion will bring Peace Corps volunteers to Vietnam for the first time ever, fostering stronger ties between the two countries.

In a message commemorating the 25th anniversary of Vietnam-U.S. relations, Pompeo said: "Over the last quarter century, our two countries have built a partnership and friendship founded on shared interests, mutual respect, and people-to-people ties."

"The ties between the American and Vietnamese peoples grow deeper every year," he said.

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