Special Report: ASEAN: Vietnam-US Relations


Professor Carlyle A. Thayer

Mr. Clinton has made reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam one of his foreign policy objectives. His administration relaxed and then lifted an economic embargo, normalized diplomatic relations and negotiated a trade agreement. The presidential visit in November caps this process.

But the United States still insists on a full accounting for American servicemen missing since the Vietnam War. Complete normalisation would relegate the issue to one of practical cooperation between the two sides. Vietnam wants the bilateral relationship to be unconditional and based fully on equality and mutual respect.

Until the United States changes its policies, Washington will continue to hold the whip hand over Hanoi. No matter how much Vietnam cooperated, it will be Washington that determined whether such cooperation is satisfactory.

While Mr. Clinton’s visit was of symbolic significance, I was also important from a geostrategic perspective. Vietnam is emerging as a major player in Southeast Asia. This change comes mainly because Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia are experiencing domestic instability or political uncertainty. Enlargement of ASEAN in recent years to include all the 10 countries of Southeast Asia had brought in members that are all at the bottom end of the development scale and governments that are politically closed. These and other factors have eroded ASEAN cohesion. No country has emerged to take up the mantel of leadership once exercised by Indonesia.

Disarray means that Vietnam, as chair of ASEAN’s standing committee for 2001, will occupy an important leadership position in the regional body. Political instability in other states also means that Vietnam can be expected to play a more influential role in regional affairs, in several instance this role has been negative, blocking initiatives for reform.

To outside powers with extensive interests n the region, such as the United States, Australia and Japan, it is important that ASEAN recover its cohesion and play a positive role in regional security. Vietnam’s contribution to that process will be critical.

Vietnam’s close military relations with China re not yet mirrored by similar military relations with the United States. American policy aims to reverse this imbalance. Vietnam is ASEAN’s designated dialogue partner with the US for the next year. But at least one State Department official has been heard to grumble ‘We don’t need Vietnam as our point of entry into ASEAN’.

WATCHPOINT: Will President Clinton’s successor be able to pick up his initiative for progress in Vietnam and ASEAN?


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