Photo: Viet Tuan
Emeritus Professor Carlyle A. Thayer from the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, spoke with VET about President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam starting next Monday.
■ What does the US expect to gain from President Obama’s visit to Vietnam?
President Obama hopes to lay a firm foundation for the development of relations with Vietnam in the years after he steps down from office by promoting initiatives to implement the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership. In particular, he would like to demonstrate that his policy of rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific has been a success. He would also like to take the opportunity of his last months in office to clear away legacies of the past with Vietnam, as he did with Iran and Cuba. Vietnam-US relations are much further advanced.
■ What does Vietnam expect from the US through the visit?
Vietnam also expects to see concrete proposals to further the Agreement of Comprehensive Partnership, in addition to more US assistance in clearing up dioxin poisoning and the disposal of unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War, and the lifting of all restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam. Vietnam expects to get a reaffirmation that the US respects its political system and that the two sides can make satisfactory progress on human rights that are agreeable to both. Most importantly, Vietnam would like both assistance and reassurance from the US with respect to the TPP.
■ What points do you believe Vietnam and the US can agree upon during the visit?
The Vietnam-US Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership includes nine areas of cooperation, including political and diplomatic relations, trade and economic ties, science and technology, education and training, environment and health, war legacy issues, defense and security, protection and promotion of human rights, and culture, sports, and tourism. Both sides will agree to closer economic cooperation and educational and academic exchanges. The issues of arms sales and human rights are interlinked in the US’s view. Both sides will attempt to bridge the gap on human rights so that the President can lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons entirely. The focus on human rights has been linked to US assistance to Vietnam in domestic legal reform to bring domestic laws into line with Vietnam’s international commitments and with the amended Constitution.
■ How will the ASEAN bloc view this visit?
Each member of ASEAN will have a different point of view. ASEAN members will look for support for their long-standing commitment to resolve disputes through peaceful means and on the basis of international law, including UNCLOS 1982. A number of issues related to disputes in the East Sea have been confused. First, all parties agree that sovereignty disputes can only be settled directly by the parties concerned. Second, ASEAN and its members are committed to concluding discussions with China on the DOC then the expeditious conclusion of a Code of Conduct. Third, the role of outside powers has been confused. Vietnam recognizes that some outside powers have an interest in the stability and security of the East Sea, including freedom of navigation. China argues against outside involvement because it deliberately conflates disputes between littoral states with the interests of outside powers. Fourth, the US is not seeking a direct role in resolving the East Sea dispute. It seeks to ensure that “might does not make right” and that force or the threatened use of force is not used to resolve disputes. The US also seeks to protect its right to freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce.
■ Do you think that commitments made by President Obama and Vietnamese leaders will be implemented smoothly after January 2017, when the US has a new President?
President Obama will leave a positive legacy to guide future US-Vietnam relations. A new President - whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump - is unlikely to overturn this legacy immediately she or he takes office. The new President will face many more serious challenges. Any new Administration will take at least one hundred days to review policy and then alter this policy to suit its priorities. Vietnam plays a positive and constructive role in ASEAN and in regional and global affairs. There is a congruence in broad strategic outlook. A new US President must also carry the support of Congress and the US Senate in particular. This will act to constrain the new US President. It is not just the actions by a new US President that could affect bilateral relations.