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by Justin Ahn

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, US–Vietnam relations were marked by continuing hostility. Deaths during the war have been estimated as 58,220 American soldiers and, on the Vietnamese side, a staggering two million civilians and one million soldiers.[1] The US had no diplomatic ties with Vietnam and imposed a full trade embargo on the country.[1] Less than fifty years later, the two countries are close economic and strategic partners thanks to their successful diplomatic efforts.

Dealing with the Legacy of War

Between 1975 and 1995, shifting international dynamics created an opportunity to build ties with Vietnam. Initially, US–Vietnam relations deteriorated as Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and aligned itself with the Soviet Union.[2]:2 However, after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989, the Bush administration decided in 1990 to seek contact with Vietnam to facilitate a peace agreement.[2]:2 In 1991, a multilateral peace accord concluded the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, and the US lifted travel restrictions against Vietnam.[1] After increasing diplomatic exchanges in the following years, in July 1995, the two countries normalized relations, agreeing to exchange ambassadors.[1]

To enable more extensive cooperation, the Foreign Service had to rebuild Americans’ trust in their recent enemy by addressing the legacies of war. Because some Americans believed that American soldiers were still being held captive in Vietnam, a full accounting of prisoners of war (POW) and missing in action soldiers (MIA) was necessary to prove that Vietnam was no longer an enemy.[3] Moreover, advocacy groups demanded that the US offer closure to veterans’ families and recover soldiers’ bodies so that their deaths would not be forgotten.[4]:7–8 As early as 1992, the Department of Defense established an office of the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in Hanoi.[4]:12 In fact, Vietnamese cooperation in accounting for MIAs was a major reason for the decision to normalize relations.[5] Once an embassy was established, under the direction of Charge d’Affaires Desaix Anderson, political officers Ted Osius and Bryan Dalton supported the efforts of JTF-FA.[4]:22 Their close coordination with Nguyễn Xuân Phong, director of the Americas office at the Foreign Ministry and Vietnam’s Office for Seeking Missing Persons, allowed JTF-FA to make steady progress in confirming that no POWs remained in Vietnam and finding the remains of American MIAs.[4]:22 To date, over 1,000 American MIAs have been identified and repatriated.[6]

Several people in pale yellow coats gather material into buckets from a dig site.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Vietnamese support unit searches for Americans’ remains, Thua Thien Hue Province, Vietnam, June 17, 2016. (Department of Defense/MC3 Armando Velez)

To regain the trust of the Vietnamese people, the Foreign Service had to repair the damages the US military had caused. During the Vietnam War, the US sprayed 45.6 million liters of the herbicide Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, over Vietnamese forests.[7]:25  More than four million Vietnamese may have been exposed to the substance, which causes serious health effects such as cancer and heart disease.[7]:25–26 From 2013 to 2018, to address the issue of Agent Orange and promote reconciliation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense collaborated to remediate roughly 90,000 square meters of dioxin-contaminated soil at Da Nang Airport, a former US air base.[8] Thanks to the clean-up, commercial activity in Da Nang airport now takes place without fear of health damage due to dioxin exposure.[7]:27–28 In 2019, the two partners inaugurated a similar project to clean up Bien Hoa Air Base, the largest remaining dioxin hotspot.[7]:27

A young tree is being planted in a field by several people. In the distance are mature trees and a white building.
Tree planting at Bien Hoa Air Base. (USAID)

Moreover, the US is currently supporting Vietnam’s effort to locate and identify fallen Vietnamese soldiers, just as Vietnam has extensively cooperated with MIA efforts for American soldiers. The Department of Defense’s Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative aims to transfer DNA analysis technology and train Vietnamese forensic workers.[6] The United States Institute of Peace accompanies this initiative with policy dialogues, public communications, and workshops to stimulate people-to-people connections between the US and Vietnam.[6]

Developing Economic Ties

Based on a foundation of trust and reconciliation, the Foreign Service built avenues of economic cooperation with Vietnam, allowing US businesses to capitalize on the growing Vietnamese economy. In the 1990s, even after President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in 1994, US firms in Vietnam fell behind competitors from other countries because US tariffs on goods produced in Vietnam were 40 percent higher than on most other countries, discouraging investments in Vietnamese manufacturing.[9] To support American companies, US negotiators worked with their Vietnamese counterparts on a bilateral trade agreement, signed in 2000, in which the countries granted each other “most favored nation” status and drastically reduced tariffs.[10]:2–9 Importantly, Vietnam agreed to some reforms to liberalize its economy, including abiding by more stringent intellectual property rights standards and relaxing restrictions on investment by US firms.[10]:10–33, 44–51

Furthermore, public diplomacy expanded US soft power among the Vietnamese people. For example, in 2014, then-Ambassador Dave Shear obtained a grant from the State Department’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to restore the Triệu Tổ Temple in the city of Huế, which had been destroyed during the Vietnam War.[4]:123 The project successfully restored local officials’ and residents’ trust in the US.[4]:123 Moreover, public affairs officer Alex Titolo arranged initiatives in Huế, including student exchanges between US educational institutions and Huế University, English-language teaching, and a small US cultural center.[4]:124

Additionally, the Foreign Service collaborates with Vietnam on Mekong River issues. Upstream, China and Laos have constructed more than seventy dams for hydroelectric power generation, threatening to disrupt Vietnam’s water supply, harm biodiversity, and reduce agricultural output.[4]:81 This issue is important not only to Vietnam but also to the US because the collapse of the Mekong ecosystem would destabilize regional security, and China’s ability to threaten to restrict water flows gives it substantial leverage over Vietnam.[7]:21 So, in 2008, following a proposal by then-Ambassador Michael Michalak, a DRAGON Institute, conducting environmental research in cooperation with the US Geological Survey, was launched at Can Tho University.[7]:17 In 2009, the US launched the Lower Mekong Initiative, supporting technical and scientific collaboration initiatives such as Forecast Mekong, which utilized data analysis to support water management and address climate variability.[7]:15, 18

Realizing Common Security Interests

In the near future, as the US seeks to pivot to Asia and counter Chinese influence in the region, engagement with Vietnam will be more important than ever. In 2013, at a summit between President Barack Obama and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang, Vietnam and the US upgraded their relationship to a “comprehensive partnership” based on “mutual respect and common interests.”[11] Under this framework, the US supports a “strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam.”[12]   During a September 2023 state visit to Hanoi, President Joseph R. Biden and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong further elevated U.S.‐Vietnam relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

As Senator John McCain wrote leading up to the normalization of relations in 1995, “It is, therefore, absolutely in our national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor [China].”[5]

Moving forward, the Foreign Service should facilitate defense cooperation with Vietnam regarding Chinese military activity in the South China Sea, a mutual concern. In recent years, China has aggressively asserted its “nine dash line” claim, which conflicts with Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.[7]:39 The US has an interest in regional stability and maintaining principles of maritime law, including sovereignty and freedom of navigation.[7]:41 While joint military exercises would go against Vietnam’s traditional policy of non-alignment, the Foreign Service should provide technical support so that Vietnam can monitor its claim in the South China Sea, collecting and publicizing data about Chinese military vessels.[13][7]:55–56

In terms of economics, the Foreign Service must reinforce trade and investment ties to build soft power. Although President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 undermined bilateral trade, the US and Vietnam can begin multilateral negotiations on a new digital trade agreement as a precursor to a broader free trade agreement. [13][4]:233–34 Moreover, the US should increase its investment presence, emphasizing niche sectors such as education and information technology while providing feasibility studies and project assessments to support infrastructure projects led by other countries.[7]:51

Of course, the Foreign Service has obstacles to overcome, such as Vietnam’s concerning human rights record. The Socialist Party of Vietnam suppresses freedom of expression, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, and labor rights, which leads some members of Congress to discourage closer diplomatic and security ties with Vietnam.[14]:6 However, the US must continue to expand and strengthen its partnership with Vietnam, given its significance in regional affairs. The progress that has been made since 1995 is remarkable; the Foreign Service has led a multifaceted reconciliation campaign to transform the US–Vietnam relationship from hostility to a comprehensive partnership. Vietnam provides lessons that the Foreign Service can draw on to build peace and advance productive, mutually beneficial relationships around the world, particularly with former enemies.End.

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Justin Ahn is a high school senior at Deerfield Academy. He lives in Bellevue, Wash. but grew up in Seoul, South Korea. He is interested in law, diplomacy, and policy, and hopes to pursue a career in foreign policymaking. In 2021-2022, Justin hosted Between the Headlines, a political podcast featuring guest interviews with civil rights lawyers, human rights experts, journalists, and others. He won the American Foreign Service Association’s 2023 high school essay contest. Justin currently serves as the president of his school’s debate club and the managing editor of the school newspaper and was a finalist in debate at the 2023 WIDPSC Championships held in South Africa.

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