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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

U.S.-Vietnam Relations in 2011: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy

Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

After communist North Vietnam’s victory over U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1975, the United States and Vietnam had minimal relations until the mid-1990s. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1995, overlapping security and economic interests have led the two sides to begin to form a strategic partnership of sorts. In 2010, the Obama Administration indicated its intent to take relations to “the next level,” and cooperated with Vietnam to coordinate a multicountry diplomatic push back against perceived Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea.

In the United States, voices favoring improved relations have included those reflecting U.S. business interests in Vietnam’s reforming economy and U.S. strategic interests in expanding cooperation with a populous country—Vietnam has 88 million people—that has an ambivalent relationship with China and that is asserting itself on the regional stage. Others argue that improvements in bilateral relations should be conditioned upon Vietnam’s authoritarian government improving its record on human rights. The population of more than 1 million Vietnamese-Americans, as well as legacies of the Vietnam War, also drive continued U.S. interest.

Vietnamese leaders have sought to upgrade relations with the United States in part due to the desire for continued access to the U.S. market and to worries about China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia. That said, Sino-Vietnam relations are Vietnam’s most important bilateral relationship and Vietnamese leaders must tiptoe carefully along the tightrope between Washington and Beijing, such that improved relations with one capital not be perceived as a threat to the other. Also, some Vietnamese remain suspicious that the United States’ long-term goal is to erode the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) monopoly on power.

The United States is Vietnam’s largest export market and in some years its largest source of foreign direct investment. Bilateral trade in 2010 was over $15 billion, a tenfold increase since the United States extended “normal trade relations” (NTR) treatment to Vietnam in 2001. Increased trade also has been fostered by Vietnam’s market-oriented reforms. From 1987-2007, Vietnam’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged over 7%. Since then, Vietnam’s economy has been buffeted by economic difficulties that have lowered growth rates and raised inflation. Vietnam is one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance in East Asia; since the late 2000s, annual U.S. aid typically surpasses $100 million, much of it for health-related activities. The United States and Vietnam are two of nine countries negotiating a Trans-Pacific Strategic and Economic Partnership (TPP) regional free trade agreement (FTA).

Human rights are the biggest thorn in the side of the relationship. Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), which appears to be following a strategy of permitting most forms of personal and religious expression while selectively repressing individuals and organizations that it deems a threat to the party’s monopoly on power. Most observers argue that the government, which already had tightened restrictions on dissent and criticism since 2007, intensified its suppression in 2010.

In January 2011, the VCP held a Party Congress that selected Nguyen Phu Trong to become the new VCP general secretary, Vietnam’s top post. Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was endorsed to continue his tenure as head of the government. Many Western analysts regard the Congress’s results as a sign that steady, incremental improvements in relations with the United States will continue. However, Dung’s power base within the VCP appears to have been weakened, which could make bilateral cooperation more difficult on some issues.

Date of Report: July 26, 2011
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: R40208
Price: $29.95

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