WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s invitation to discuss nuclear security issues with leaders from 46 other nations brought Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Washington this week, but nuclear safety was just part of his agenda.
As Vietnam approaches the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and the 15th anniversary of resumed diplomatic ties with the United States, the two former enemies now look toward each other as economic and strategic partners. And each sees, in the relationship, a potential counterbalance to Chinese power.
Dung spoke glowingly to American business leaders of Vietnam’s economic growth — 7.2 percent per year over the last decade — and endorsed Obama’s concerns about nuclear safety at the summit. He met with Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and had scheduled bilateral talks with leaders from Korea, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
Trade between the United States and Vietnam has soared from $2 billion to $16 billion per year in the last 10 years, and the two nations are now in the process of negotiating a regional free trade agreement.
“The United States is committed to strengthening our partnership with Vietnam as a key pillar of our presence in this region,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told the Vietnamese, in a speech in Hanoi on Monday.
“Our aim is to play a re-energized role in Asia,” Hormats said. “The relationship between Vietnam and the United States has never been stronger, deeper, and more constructive.”
In a meeting with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Wednesday, Dung put two of Vietnam’s concerns about China on the table.
The prime minister arrived shortly after noon and spent much of the next 45 minutes with Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They spoke about trade, the environment, political repression in Myanmar and how to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Vietnam chairs this year. They also talked about China.
China has upset the United States, and Vietnam, with territorial claims to the waters of the South China Sea. Dung “expressed concerns” about the matter, said Kerry, who saw an opportunity for the two nations to work together on the issue. “We’re going to follow up on that in a significant way,” the senator promised. “It goes to the heart of freedom of passage in that region. ... We have a mutual interest.”
Kerry and Dung also discussed global warming, another area where Chinese and Vietnamese interests run counter to each other. China’s rapid industrialization has relied on power plants burning coal and other fossil fuels, which add to the threat of climate change. Vietnam, a low-lying nation, would suffer greatly from rising sea levels brought on by warming, especially if the rice fields of the Mekong River delta, which serves as the region’s food basket, were to be inundated by saltwater. And Chinese dams on the upper Mekong, siphoning water from the river, add to downstream problems.
The Vietnamese “are very threatened” and “they are feeling threatened” by global warming, said Kerry. Other countries in Asia and Africa are more likely to listen to warnings about climate change when it comes from a fellow developing nation, like Vietnam, he noted, than from a developed country like the U.S.
“That’s the secret of how we progress,” said Kerry, a leader on climate change legislation in the Senate.
The economic bonds between the United States and Vietnam have grown at a pace few imagined 15 years ago, when the Clinton administration opened diplomatic ties.
There are still trouble spots in the relationship. In Hanoi this week, Hormats urged the Vietnamese to keep making progress toward guaranteeing human rights, press and internet freedom, and toward an open, market-oriented economy. He objected, specifically, to Vietnamese proposals to use price controls to battle inflation.
“Where price controls have been tried, they do not work — and cause long-term distortion that lasts for years and is difficult to unwind,” Hormats said. “Please look at the experiences of other countries before you embark on that path.”
The Obama administration recognizes that, as the U.S. has been preoccupied with Islamic terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been seen as disinterested in Southeast Asia. But “the United States is back,” Hillary Clinton promised last year. She is scheduled to visit Vietnam this year.