Twenty years is a long period for one's lifetime. Yet, it is merely a fleeting moment in the history of relations between nations. Few people could have imagined that Vietnam and the United States (US) would make such great strides in their bilateral ties after two decades of normalized relations. The 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations is a critical moment for us to reflect upon the past and look forward to a better future for both countries as well as for peace, cooperation and development in the Asia-Pacific and the world at large.
Strong impetus to the Comprehensive Partnership
At the time of normalization of relations in 1995, Vietnam was known to most Americans as a war rather than a country. Today, the word "Vietnam" has become familiar in the daily life of Americans. Vietnamese goods, from farm produce and footwear to other consumer goods are sold in most major US stores. In the past 20 years, especially since the signing of the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) in 2000, economic and trade ties between the two countries have really taken off. From a modest figure of USD 400 million in 1994, bilateral trade increased by 90 folds to USD 36.3 billion in 2014. With USD 30.6 billion export to the US in 2014, Vietnam became ASEAN's number-one exporter to the US market. Vietnam even surpassed India and joined the list of top 10 net exporters to the world's largest consumer market.
During the last 5 years, the US jumped from the 11th to the 7th largest investor in Vietnam with a total capital of USD 11 billion. Some US major groups have moved their "production base" to Vietnam while others are planning to follow suit. This opens up the prospect for the US to become the largest investor in Vietnam, a target set out by Ambassador Ted Osius. It is expected the economic ties between Vietnam and the US will even skyrocket in the near future with the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Such giant steps forward in economic cooperation are accompanied by the upward trend in science-technology and education cooperation. Vietnam-US cooperation in key industries ranging from wind power and aerospace research to peaceful use of nuclear energy has seen new progresses, especially following the US Congress' ratification of the Agreement on Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation (“123” Agreement) in 2014. The number of Vietnamese students in the US has increased by 34 times from 500 students in 1995 to 17,000 students at present. As such, Vietnam is the top country in the ASEAN and the eighth in the world having students in the US. Vietnam and the US are also working on the project to establish the Fulbright University in Vietnam.
Beyond these impressive figures, the two countries have step by step overcome suspicion and disagreement to constantly deepen political ties and mutual understanding. Since 2000, Vietnam and the US have exchanged six high-level visits, during which leaders from both sides adopted four Joint Statements in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2013. In particular, under the Joint Statement between President Truong Tan Sang and President Obama, the Vietnam-US Comprehensive Partnership was defined to cover nine areas of cooperation, thus opening up a new chapter of relations with added substance. The contacts and meetings between leaders of both countries on the sidelines of multilateral events have become more frequent. From only one dialogue on Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) issues, the two countries have established more than 10 dialogue mechanisms, including very important ones such as Regular Ministerial Dialogue, the Political-Security-Defense Dialogue, Defense Policy Dialogue, Asia-Pacific Strategic Dialogue and Human Rights Dialogue.
Leaving the past behind and looking to the future while respecting differences
It is not easy to shelf the past, especially one deeply engraved with scars of war. Yet, with a forward-looking mindset, Vietnam and the US have been making great efforts to move beyond the past and together shape the future. With the spirit of benevolence and humanity, Vietnam has been working actively with the US in search for missing soldiers. To date, approximately 950 remains of fallen American soldiers have been recovered, among which 700 remains have been identified. The US has also provided over 300 dossiers to help retrieve the remains of more than 1,000 Vietnamese soldiers. It also provided USD 100 million for dioxin clean-up in Da Nang and USD 80 million for removal of unexploded ordnance. Although much remains to be done, the efforts made by both sides have significantly contributed to healing the wounds of war, promoting reconciliation and building trust between the two nations.
Obviously, disagreements and differences still exist between Vietnam and the US, particularly on the issues of democracy and human rights. What is important is that both sides have clearly shown respect for differences and engaged in candid and open dialogues to narrow down disagreements and foster cooperation. To date, 19 human rights dialogues have been conducted, and both Vietnam and the US are currently members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Vietnam and the United States in the "Asia Century"
It is predicted that the 21st century will be the Asia century. If that is true, the trans-Pacific ties between the US and Asian countries, including its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam, will be contributing factors to shape the region's future.
Beyond the bilateral sphere, Vietnam-US relations have made increasingly important contributions to peace, cooperation and development in the Asia-Pacific and worldwide. From the arrangements with ASEAN centrality such as the EAS, ARF, ADMM+ to larger fora such as APEC and the UN, Vietnam and the US are working closely together on various issues, ranging from non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change response, water security to UN peace-keeping operations.
With the ASEAN Community's coming into being later this year, both sides are moving toward an ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership. Vietnam will continue to play an important role in ASEAN-US ties, especially in boosting the implementation of the E3 (Expanded Economic Engagement) Initiative and TIFA (Trade and Investment Framework Agreement) between ASEAN and the US.
A shared vision for the road ahead
In his letter to President Harry Truman dated February 16, 1946, President Ho Chi Minh articulated Vietnam's goal for "full independence and full cooperation with the US". He stressed: “Vietnam will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world." The world we live in today is moving so fast that Vietnam and the US are not allowed to miss any opportunities as in the past.
The past 20 years of Vietnam-US relations, especially since the announcement of Comprehensive Partnership in July 2013, have shown that peace and prosperity in the Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific would be better secured when Vietnam-US relations progress, and the friendship and comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and the US are in line with shared interests of all countries in the region.
The history of relations between Vietnam and the US is full of vicissitudes. Nevertheless, the tremendous progress of the bilateral ties over the past 20 years has proven that Vietnam and the US have no choice but to promote an equal and mutually beneficial cooperation on the basis of respect for each other's political regime, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, the UN Charter and international law. Dialogue must prevail over confrontation. It is the only way for both countries to overcome the past and work together for a brighter future of each nation, for peace, cooperation and development in the region and the world.”-VNA/VLLF
Chronology of key milestones in the Vietnam-US ties
August 1987: Envoy of US President, General John Vessey, visits Vietnam for the first time to discuss humanitarian issues of shared concern.
July 1991: The Office for Missing in Action Affairs officially goes into operation, becoming the first US official agency present full-time in Vietnam since 1975.
December 1991: Washington lifts the ban on organized US travel to Vietnam.
November 1992: Restrictions on US telephone service to Vietnam are lifted, allowing direct phone service between the two countries.
December 1992: US President George H. W. Bush allows US companies to open representative offices in Vietnam and sign contracts after the trade embargo is lifted.
January 1995: The two countries sign an agreement establishing liaison offices in each other’s capital.
July, 1995: US President Bill Clinton announces normalization of relations with Vietnam.
July 2000: Vietnam and the US sign Bilateral Trade Agreement.
November 2000: Bill Clinton becomes the first US President to pay an official visit to Vietnam.
November 2006: US President George W. Bush visits Vietnam.
June 2005: Prime Minister Phan Van Khai visits the US at the invitation of President George W. Bush.
December 2006: US Congress approves Permanent Normal Trade Relation status for Vietnam.
June 2007: President Nguyen Minh Triet visits the US at the invitation of President George W. Bush.
June 2008: Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visits the US at the invitation of President George W. Bush.
July 2013: President Truong Tan Sang pays an official visit to US at the invitation of President Barack Obama. Both sides release Joint Statements to establish their Comprehensive Partnership.
June 2014: Vietnam and the US sign the 123 Civil Nuclear Cooperation Pact.
October 2014: US partially lifts lethal weapons ban on Vietnam.
2015: Both countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of normalized relations.
July 2015: Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong pays an official visit to the US.-VNA/VLLF