Professor Vũ Đoàn Kết
Faculty of International Politics and Diplomacy, Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam.
The relationship between Việt Nam and the United States has hitherto been defined as a comprehensive partnership framework. This framework has not accurately reflected this relationship; it is actually a strategic one in specific aspects, according to some observers.
If the comprehensive or strategic partnership framework is the de facto high watermark in relations between the two nations, who were enemies at one time before a normalisation process was triggered by then President Bill Clinton lifting the trade embargo on Việt Nam in 1994, lifting the arms ban on Việt Nam, which was announced on Monday, is the ultimate effort to accomplish this process, as well as to reinforce the partnership framework that both nations envision. As a whole, it is more than the cherry on top.
Before Obama’s trip to Việt Nam, Senator John McCain released a statement saying “This symbolic ban of weapon sales is a product of our past history and an inhibitor of our future relationship… We [the US] cannot ask our partners to contribute more while continuing to take steps to directly limit the level of their contribution”.
McCain is correct. There would not be any comprehensive or strategic partnership if the relationship were not built upon the fundamental principles of normal relations. There would not be normal relations between two nations if one side maintained a unilateral embargo towards the other. “The time has come for a full lifting of this prohibition” continued Senator McCain.
In his press conference on Monday (May 23, 2016) and remarks to young Vietnamese people on Tuesday (May 24, 2016) in Hà Nội, President Barack Obama said that lifting the arms ban was the ultimate step to completing the long process of normalisation to Việt Nam, in tandem with consolidating the bilateral relationship, which might be called a comprehensive partnership or more.
What normality means
In international relations, a normal relationship between nations entails no hostile or dissident attitudes or actions towards each other. An embargo is manifestly part of an abnormal relationship. The end of the US’s lethal weapons ban on Việt Nam, despite its challenges in practice, echoes the long journey of normalising relations, but also reflects distinctive dimensions of the word ‘normalisation’.
One dimension is the ‘normal’ position of Việt Nam in conducting foreign affairs in a spirit of multi-directionalisation and multi-lateralisation, a policy in place since the early 90’s. To some, concerned that the US’s lifting of the embargo on Việt Nam and its enhancement in military ties between the two countries aims at particular objectives, hereafter they should normalise their perspective on Việt Nam’s foreign affairs as an independent and autonomous country. As such, Việt Nam has legitimate rights to build partnerships and to legally purchase military equipment and weapons with any partners, regardless of purpose or objective.
For the US, lifting the embargo on Việt Nam is part of normalisation in terms of ‘detoxing’ the legacy of ‘Việt Nam Syndrome’. When a foe becomes a friend and they are encouraged to establish a partnership, maintaining an embargo achieves nothing but provides excuses for those who don’t want the two countries to complete the normalisation process. They want to use lifting the arms ban to achieve progress in human rights and democracy. In fact, these topics are already under discussion and will be discussed more effectively in the framework of a normalised relationship instead of a sceptical and hostile ambiance.
The same goes for Việt Nam, it needs to cure its ‘US syndrome’ as Lê Văn Bàng, retired Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Ambassador to the US mentioned in an interview with VietTimes, wondering whether the end of the economic embargo and normalisation in politics and military relations, and ultimately lifting the arms embargo were practical achievements that affirmed the US’s respect for Việt Nam’s political regime and choices. President Obama’s invitation to General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng in 2015 proved that achievement. What can Vietnamese people learn from those events? They show the sincerity of the US in the process of trust building between the two nations, two peoples and from that basis, ending hostility and easing the losses of the two peoples. As President Obama quoted from the Tale of Kiều:
‘Please take from me this token of trust, so we can embark upon our 100-year journey together’
Finally, in his remarks in Hà Nội Obama confirmed an inarguable truth of normal international relations, saying that ‘The 20th century taught us, including the United States and Việt Nam, that the international order, which our mutual security depends, is ruled in certain rules and norms… No matter how large or small a nation may be, its sovereignty should be respected, and its territory should not be violated. The big nation should not bully the smaller one.” That’s not a lesson learnt from modern international relations but it’s a principle, which has been built through thousands of years of fighting for Việt Nam’s independence. It is enshrined in the first Independence Declaration of Đại Việt that President Obama was the first foreign head of state to speak:
“The Southern emperor rules the Southern land. Our destiny is written in Heaven’s Book.”