After a 20-year hiatus of severed ties, President Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 11, 1995. Subsequent to President Clinton's normalization announcement, in August 1995, both nations upgraded their Liaison Offices opened during January 1995 to embassy status. As diplomatic ties between the nations grew, the United States opened a consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam opened a consulate general in San Francisco.
As a single-party authoritarian state, Vietnam has a consistently poor record on human rights, and still reacts defensively to criticism, though it has learned to be more responsive to international calls for dialogue, engaging the United States and others in annual formal human rights discussion. For many in the Politburo and Central Committee, the "lessons" of 1989 and 1991, and more recently of the "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, remain fresh. This, coupled with lingering war-era animosities, colors the perceptions of some hard-line elements in the Ministries of Public Security and Defense, as well as the Party hierarchy. One positive area is in religious freedom. Much remains to be done, but in general, Vietnam continues to take steps to permit its citizens to worship freely.
US relations with Vietnam have become increasingly cooperative and broad-based in the years since political normalization. A series of bilateral summits have helped drive the improvement of ties, including President Bush's visit to Hanoi in November 2006, President Triet's visit to Washington in June 2007, and Prime Minister Dung's visit to Washington in June 2008. The two countries hold an annual dialogue on human rights, resumed in 2006 after a two-year hiatus. They signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement in July 2000, which went into force in December 2001. In 2003, the two countries signed a Counternarcotics Letter of Agreement (amended in 2006), a Civil Aviation Agreement, and a textile agreement.
On December 29, 2006, in Presidential Determination No. 2007-10, the President determined that Vietnam is eligible to receive defense articles and defense services. In January 2007, Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Vietnam. In October 2008, the U.S. and Vietnam held political-military talks and policy planning talks to consult on regional security and strategic issues. Bilateral diplomatic engagement expanded at ASEAN and APEC, and with Vietnam's January 2008 start of a two-year term on the UN Security Council.
Vietnam's suppression of political dissent continued to be the main issue of contention in relations with the U.S., drawing criticism from the administration and Congress. In spring 2007, Vietnam's government launched a crackdown on political dissidents, and in November the same year arrested a group of pro-democracy activists, including two Americans. By May 2008, all Americans had been released. In 2008, the Vietnamese Government tightened controls over the press and freedom of speech and convicted two journalists for their reporting on high-level corruption. An Internet blogger was also jailed after writing about corruption and protesting China's actions in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands. In contrast, Vietnam has continued to make significant progress on expanding religious freedom. In 2005, Vietnam passed comprehensive religious freedom legislation, outlawing forced renunciations and permitting the official recognition of new denominations. As a result, in November 2006, the Department of State lifted the designation of Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern," based on a determination that the country was no longer a serious violator of religious freedoms, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act. This decision was reaffirmed by the Department of State in November 2007. The government's harassment of certain religious leaders for their political activism, including leaders of the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, was an ongoing source of U.S. concern.
As of November 2011, the U.S. Government listed 1,679 Americans unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, including 1,288 in Vietnam. Since 1973, 967 Americans have been accounted for, including 683 in Vietnam. Additionally, the Department of Defense has confirmed that of the 196 individuals who were "last known alive" (LKA) in Vietnam, the U.S. Government has determined the fate of all but 25. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting command (JPAC) conducts four major investigation and recovery periods a year in Vietnam, during which specially trained U.S. military and civilian personnel investigate and excavate hundreds of cases in pursuit of the fullest possible accounting. Unrestricting areas previously denied to JPAC personnel has been a recent highlight of cooperation by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as was the first-ever turnover of POW/MIA-related artifacts from the Vietnam Military History Museum, apparently a reciprocal action in response to U.S. turnovers of Vietnamese war artifacts. In June 2009, a coastal search mission by the oceanographic survey ship USNS Heezen was the first of its kind, creating the potential to recover hundreds of underwater crash sites. The U.S. would still like to see the provision of archival documents related to U.S. losses along the wartime Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as more openness in general with regard to Vietnam’s wartime archives. The United States considers achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing and unaccounted for in Indochina to be one of its highest priorities with Vietnam.
Since entry into force of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement on December 10, 2001, increased trade between the U.S. and Vietnam, combined with large-scale U.S. investment in Vietnam, evidence the maturing U.S.-Vietnam economic relationship. In 2007, the United States exported $1.9 billion of goods to Vietnam and imported $10.6 billion of goods from Vietnam. Similarly, U.S. companies continue to invest directly in the Vietnamese economy. During 2006, the U.S. private sector committed $444 million to Vietnam in foreign direct investment. Another sign of the expanding bilateral relationship is the signing of a Bilateral Air Transport Agreement in December 2003. Several U.S. carriers already have third-party code sharing agreements with Vietnam Airlines. Direct flights between Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco began in December 2004. Vietnam and the United States also signed a Bilateral Maritime Agreement in March 2007 that opened the maritime transport and services industry of Vietnam to U.S. firms.
Cooperation in other areas, such as defense engagement, nonproliferation, and law enforcement, is also expanding steadily. Prime Minister Dung announced during his June 2008 visit to the U.S. that Vietnam plans to take part in peacekeeper training under the U.S.-funded, multinational Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). In June 2008, Vietnam hosted a port call to Nha Trang by the hospital ship USNS Mercy, providing medical and dental treatment to over 11,000 Vietnamese patients. This followed Vietnam's hosting of visits by five U.S. Navy vessels in 2007, including a port call to Danang by the humanitarian supply ship USS Peleliu, whose personnel carried out numerous medical and engineering projects. Also in June 2008, Vietnamese observers took part for the second successive year in the multinational naval exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), organized by the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Vietnam remains heavily contaminated by explosive remnants of war, primarily in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO) including extensive contamination by cluster munitions dating from the war with the United States. The United States is the largest single donor to UXO/mine action. The Department of State continues to assist Vietnam in detecting and clearing unexploded ordnance, educating the public on the risks of UXO, and providing assistance to the victims of UXO. Since 1993, U.S. has contributed over $62 million in UXO clearance, risk education, and victims’ assistance programs and support for persons with disabilities, regardless of cause.
While legacy issues such as UXO/demining, MIA accounting, and Agent Orange provided the foundations for the U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship, mutual interest in addressing the challenges of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, search and rescue, and maritime security have allowed the defense relationship to accelerate, with Vietnam participating in U.S.-provided capacity-building training in these areas. Many of these topics are discussed in annual bilateral defense discussions.
In August 2010, a delegation of senior Vietnamese civilian and military officials participated in a fly-out to the USS George Washington in international waters off the coast of Vietnam just prior to the USS John S. McCain visit to Danang, Vietnam. In July 2011 another delegation of government and military officials participated in a fly-out and tour aboard the USS George Washington.
Two years after its first visit to Vietnam, the hospital ship USNS Mercy paid a port call to Quy Nhon in June 2010, where it provided medical and dental treatment to thousands; the USNS Mercy's June 2008 visit to Nha Trang reached over 11,000 Vietnamese patients. Other U.S. Navy visits in 2011 included the first U.S. military ship visit to Cam Ranh Bay in over three decades, when the USNS Richard E. Byrd entered the port for maintenance and repair in August 2011; the USNS Diehl followed for routine maintenance and repair in October. Vietnam continues to observe multinational exercises such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) organized by the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the yearly GPOI CAPSTONE exercise organized by the U.S. Pacific Command.
An active partner in nonproliferation regimes, Vietnam also takes full advantage of expertise, equipment, and training available under the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program. With the support of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Megaports Initiative, Vietnam is installing radiation detection equipment to help it detect and identify weapons of mass destruction and their components at the commercial port of Cai Mep-Vung Tau. Vietnam agreed in 2010 to join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and Prime Minister Dung was an active participant in President Barack Obama's April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
The U.S. said 05 June 2013 that it would not lift remaining sanctions on weapons exports to Vietnam unless Hanoi improves its human rights record. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Joseph Yun told a congressional hearing on U.S. relations with Vietnam that Washington would not support an upgrade in bilateral ties without “demonstrable, sustained improvement” on human rights. “While we intend to pursue closer security ties with Vietnam, there remain limits on our military-to-military relationship related to human rights,” Yun told a panel on Asia and the Pacific of the U.S House of Representatives.
Yun said however that the U.S. would support Vietnam’s efforts to modernize its military “within the nonlethal realm” to maintain peace and security in Southeast Asia. “[W]e have made clear to Vietnam’s defense and civilian leaders that for the United States to consider lifting the remaining restrictions on defense equipment exports, including on lethal weapons, there needs to be continued demonstrable, sustained improvement in the human rights situation in the country,” he said.
During a White House meeting on July 25, 2013, President Barack Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang announced a U.S. Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership that will include a focus on international law. In a joint statement they “…agreed to work more closely to counter terrorism; enhance maritime law enforcement cooperation; combat transnational crime including piracy, and narcotics, human and wildlife trafficking; and address high-tech crime and cyber security.”
Vietnam has called for the removal of the remaining sanctions, saying it would serve both Washington and Hanoi’s mutual interests and allow Vietnam to “overhaul and upgrade our weaponry.” Experts have suggested that the U.S. is unlikely to lift the ban any time soon, as the most recent annual human rights report released by the U.S. State Department does not support changing current policy.
Vietnam has welcomed closer military ties with the United States, and has allowed U.S. Navy supply ships to dock for repairs and maintenance in recent years. Rumors swirled in Augsut 2013 in official Vietnamese media that the United States was considering suspending a ban on the export of lethal weapons to the Hanoi government. However, there was no official confirmation of those deliberations. Analysts have cautioned against expecting any such concessions from Washington without evidence of significant improvement in Vietnam's human rights record.
While the US shares common views with the GVN in many areas, differences over human rights remain, and lingering fears that the United States supports the overthrow of the current regime continue to complicate the relationship. The existence of groups in the United States and elsewhere that explicitly advocate regime change helps generate charges by conservatives that the US Government supports the overthrow of the current regime. These stoke a lingering paranoia that the is indeed still "the enemy."
Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said September 25, 2014, nearly 20 years after the two countries normalized relations, it is time to end what he calls the "abnormal" U.S. arms embargo on its former enemy. Minh, in a rare foreign policy statement, also warned the Asia-Pacific region faces an unprecedented risk of military conflict over territorial disputes. Senior Obama administration officials are quoted as saying discussions on easing the embargo are taking place in Washington and could result in a decision by the end of the year.
The United States partially lifted the embargo on lethal weapon deliveries to Vietnam, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said 02 October 2014. "The [US] State Department has taken steps to allow for the future transfer of maritime security-related defense articles to Vietnam," Psaki said at a press briefing, noting that US Secretary of State John Kerry informed Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh of the decision during their meeting. The US arms embargo on weapon sales to Vietnam had been in force since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
Washington and Hanoi agreed 23 May 2016 to strengthen their partnership in substance and in depth, making cooperation the cornerstone in military assistance, trade, health care and people-to-people exchanges. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang welcomed the move as an end to a “painful chapter.” resident Obama confirmed: “The United States is fully lifting the ban on sale of military equipment to Vietnam that's been in place for some 50 years ... Sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those on human rights, but this change ensures Vietnam has access to equipment it needs to defend itself."
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