Why are Vietnam-US not strategic partners?

VietNamNet Bridge – The “Comprehensive Partnership” between Vietnam – U.S. is mainly an agreement describing step by step progress on a wide range of areas. It seems that both Vietnam and the United States have their own interests while avoiding pushing things too fast, commented Prof. Carl Thayer of the Center for Defense and Strategic Studies (CDSS) of Australia.

President Truong Tan Sang and President Obama President Sang successfully conveyed the message of Vietnam

President Truong Tan Sang and President Obama President Sang successfully conveyed the message of Vietnam

President Truong Tan Sang’s visit must be judged a success. His visit marked the resumption of high-level visits after five years since the visit to the US by former President Nguyen Minh Triet.

President Sang took a forthright stance in addressing U.S. concerns over human rights and took the initiative by bringing with him religious dignitaries from Vietnam to speak directly to the American side. President Truong Tan Sang was poised, articulate and successful in conveying Vietnam’s stance and viewpoint to his American audience. He was most adroit in handling the human rights issue. He agreed to discuss this issue and called for dialogue. President Sang also committed Vietnam to signing the UN Convention Against Torture and inviting the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in 2014.

Despite disagreements between the U.S. and Vietnam, both sides agree to found a comprehensive partnership, further cooperation in nine major areas, most notably political-diplomatic, trade and economic relations, science and technology and education. This is a plus for Vietnam as it pursues proactive international integration.

Related to the East Sea topic, basically both sides share the same commitment to the rule of international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes without force or the threat of force. Both sides easily agreed on supporting the effective implementation of the Declaration on Conduct in the East Sea. And both sides gave their support to the negotiation of a Code of Conduct.

It is significant that the Joint Statement issued by presidents Obama and Truong Tan Sang included references to cooperation between American oil companies, Exxon Mobile and Murphy Oil, and PetroVietnam. Support for the COC and the inclusion of references to American-Vietnam oil cooperation should provide a measure of deterrent to China against taking any assertive actions.

What is the Comprehensive Partnership?

Especially, after talks at the White House, President Truong Tan Sang and President Obama announced the decision to establish a comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the United States.

The U.S.-Vietnam agreement is largely a political statement that bilateral relations have developed depth and breadth across a number of areas. A comprehensive partnership agreement seeks to enhance relations across multiple areas through bilateral coordinating mechanisms.

The comprehensive partnership will result in more frequent dialogue and consultations between the U.S. and Vietnam and thus raise the efficiency of bilateral relations in nine areas: political and diplomatic; trade and economic ties; science and technology; education cooperation; environment and health; war legacy issues; defense and security; and promotion and protection of human rights. The present agreement calls for the creation of new mechanisms in each of these areas. Through these mechanisms each side will come to understand the other side a bit better and build trust. This will result in greater cooperation.

Why is not strategic partnership?

Before the joint statement between President Obama and President Truong Tan Sang was published, it had been believed that Vietnam and the United States would upgrade bilateral relations to strategic partnership, which was firstly proposed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Hanoi in 2010.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stressed in his speech that Vietnam would seek strategic partnerships with all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Because Vietnam has signed strategic partnership agreements with China, Russia and the UK, which means that other priorities will be placed on establishing strategic partnership with France and the United States.

However, this type of agreement has different meaning to both sides. The U.S., for example, places greater stress on defense and security cooperation in its meaning of a strategic partner. In fact the first reference to Vietnam as a potential U.S. strategic partnership came in the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2010.

Vietnam has negotiated over ten strategic partnership agreements with foreign countries and it prefers to use this term to describe comprehensive bilateral relations with a greater emphasis on many areas of cooperation.

There are many possible reasons to explain why latter the two parties chose “comprehensive partnership” instead of “strategic partnership.”

U.S.-Vietnam negotiations on a strategic partnership reportedly stalled in late 2011 over disagreement on how human rights should be addressed. U.S. officials have since linked progress on the TPP and other cooperation on “demonstrable progress on human rights.”

The U.S. side has strategic partnership agreements with Singapore and Indonesia. It appears that the U.S. side made the judgment that bilateral relations must be developed further before they can be termed a strategic partnership. Vietnam, which has promoted the term strategic partnership in relations with the major power, likely had second thoughts about whether increased defense and security cooperation might be viewed as aligning with the United States. President Truong Tan Sang’s visit was hastily arranged. Officials on both sides had only two weeks to prepare. It is likely that Vietnam had more limited objectives than a formal strategic partnership agreement. In other words, it suited the interests of both sides not to proceed too quickly.

So comprehensive partnership between Vietnam – United States should be seen as strategic partnership under another name? Precedent is the comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and Australia. Actually, Vietnam and Australia negotiated a strategic partnership but in the end, at Australia’s insistence, the agreement was titled a comprehensive partnership. However, the deal also comes with an action plan and a mixed mechanism for monitoring the implementation – like the strategic partnership agreements which Vietnam has signed with other countries.

Meanwhile, comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the United States is still an exploring process. Most of the nine points in the joint statement are a repetition of the areas of cooperation which have been implemented. The joint statement only reinforces the role of the existing bilateral mechanisms in a number of areas (Council of Trade Agreements and Investment, Joint Committee on Cooperation of Science and Technology, Defense Policy Dialogue, Political – Security – Defense Dialogue). This agreement contained a commitment to conduct high-level exchanges and established a new bilateral political-diplomatic mechanism at ministerial level.

The Comprehensive Partnership between Vietnam – United States does not mention the Action Plan or a high-level mechanism to coordinate the nine areas named in the joint statement. Instead, the joint statement noted that the new cooperative mechanisms will be built in each area.

Generally, high-level discussions between Vietnam – United States primarily promote bilateral cooperation in trade and economic issues, including the commitment to complete the TPP agreement and establish regular dialogue between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries. Therefore, comprehensive partnership between Vietnam – U.S. is mainly an agreement describing step by step progress on a wide range of areas. The agreement is different with other strategic partnership agreements of Vietnam and at present it does not have strategic vision like the comprehensive partnership agreement that Vietnam has established with Australia.

Prof. Carl Thayer