Vietnam and the US: From enemies to lovers

Hanoi and Washington are more than eager to join forces in pushing back against a rising China.

Barack Obama, Nguyen Phu Trong
Obama has astutely transformed former enemies into major strategic partners, writes Heydarian [AP]

Forty years after the end of Vietnam War, which claimed countless lives and bitterly divided American society, two former enemies have come closer than ever to a full-fledged strategic partnership. Recently, Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s ideological leader, embarked on a historic trip to the White House, where he was cordially received by US President Barack Obama.

It marked the first trip by Vietnam’s Communist Party chief to the United States, reflecting how far the two countries have come in shelving their past animosities in favour of a new beginning. Without a doubt, the meeting represented a seismic shift in the strategic orientation of both powers – and the beginning of a new era in Asia’s rapidly evolving power plays.

More than anything, the underlying logic of closer US-Vietnamese relations is a shared concern with the rise of China, which has precipitated a significant rise in territorial tensions across the Western Pacific. 

One Minute South China Sea

Following the age-old (Middle Eastern) dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Hanoi and Washington are more than eager to join their forces in pushing back against a rising superpower, which is upending the post-Cold War order in Asia.

A new beginning

Back in his early days in office, Obama promised to extend an olive branch to rivals, who choose to unclench their fist. His bold diplomatic initiatives has paved the way for normalisation of ties (after 50 years) with the communist regime of Cuba and, even more astonishingly, unprecedented diplomatic exchanges with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a whole range of issues, from nuclear non-proliferation to counter-terrorism. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent more time with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, than any other foreign minister.

What is less appreciated about Obama, however, is how he has astutely transformed former enemies into major strategic partners in recent years. For the past two decades, Vietnam has no longer been considered as a US rival. The US in fact became a major export market for Vietnam’s burgeoning textiles and manufacturing sector. But they haven’t been exactly friends either.

For long, Hanoi’s communist leadership was intent on preserving close diplomatic ties with Beijing, a major trading partner, and largely shunned robust security cooperation with Washington in order to preserve its independence and appease China. Maintaining cordial ties with their fellow communist northern neighbour was particularly importance, since China became the primary source of investments, trade, and technology.

Cognisant of Vietnam's acute strategic dilemma, the Obama administration skilfully shepherded closer strategic ties with its former enemy.


But as Vietnam’s economy became excessively dependent on China, long-dormant maritime territorial disputes between the two neighbours began to resurface in the late 2000s, culminating in the “oil rig” crisis of mid-2014, which almost sparked a military confrontation. 

The eagle steps in

Cognisant of Vietnam’s acute strategic dilemma, the Obama administration skilfully shepherded closer strategic ties with its former enemy.

In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton injected the US right into the heart of the South China Sea disputes by declaring freedom of navigation in international waters as a US “national interest” and going so far as openly criticising China’s territorial assertiveness against Vietnam and other smaller Southeast Asian countries.

Since then, the Obama administration has dispatched one top-level official after the other to Hanoi, laying down the foundation of a potentially consequential alliance in Asia. In July 2012, during her trip to Hanoi, Secretary Clinton invited Communist Party chief Trong to visit Washington, a highly symbolic gesture that signalled a new type of bilateral relationship.

Washington was intent on showing how age-old disagreements over human rights related issues as well as Vietnam’s strong party-to-party ties with China are no longer a barrier to stronger bilateral cooperation.

Shadow of the dragon

On its part, the Vietnamese leadership also expressed its commitment to diversify its foreign relations in order to dampen Hanoi’s precarious dependence on Beijing, which became an increasingly fierce competitor in the scramble for the South China Sea. Hanoi was desperate for new allies, and Washington was more than eager to step in.

Under its “Pivot to Asia” policy, formally announced in late 2011, the Obama administration sought to deepen America’s strategic footprint across the Asia-Pacific theatre. Vietnam stood as a highly important country, because it is crucial to both the economic and security dimensions of Obama’s re-balancing towards Asia.

On the economic front, Vietnam – among the most promising emerging markets – is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, the centrepiece of Obama’s efforts to open up Asian markets for American corporations and push back against Chinese economic preponderance in Asia. Through the TPP, Vietnam’s pro-reform leaders, led by the charismatic Prime Minister Nguyen Tang Dung, are intent on liberalising the country’s economy as well as diversifying sources of foreign direct investments.

Counting the Cost – The scramble for the South China Sea

Of greater significance is the blossoming security cooperation between the two countries. In recent years, the US has pledged tens of millions of dollars to upgrade Vietnam’s maritime patrol agencies, relaxed restrictions on exports of lethal weapons to Vietnam, conducted joint military exercises, and is pushing for greater access to naval facilities in Cam Ranh Bay.

During their “candid” meeting in the White House, Obama told his Vietnamese counterpart that they share a commitment to “ensure that the prosperity and freedom of navigation that has underwritten the enormous economic growth” in Asia is not undermined by any country’s aggressive behaviour.

On his part, Trong lamented “the recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation”. Though both leaders stopped short of directly blaming China, it was more than clear which country has brought them closer to each other than ever.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.