pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

From Foes to Partners: 25 Years of U.S.-Vietnam Relations

Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 1-5

Volume Overview

Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.-Vietnam Next-Generation Leaders Initiative. With backgrounds in academia, public policy, military and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Between October 2020 and April 2021, cohort members engaged with senior experts and practitioners as they developed research papers addressing various aspects of the bilateral relationship.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email [email protected].

Chapter Excerpt

It has been 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States. Throughout those 25 years, the relationship has achieved significant breakthroughs. The two Cold War adversaries are now close security and economic partners.

Most experts point to both countries’ common misgivings on China as the most significant determinant. However, a closer look at the history of the relationship would reveal that the extraordinary transition from wartime foes to comprehensive partners was far from parochial. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 was a bitter pill to swallow for many Americans. The fall of Saigon to Communist North Vietnam eroded America’s standing in the world, and Americans’ confidence in themselves. Meanwhile, despite being victorious, the remnants of war, like Agent Orange, unexploded ordnance, and the sheer loss of lives at the hands of U.S. service members, could not have possibly erased the antagonism and anti-American sentiments among the Vietnamese public. Yet, the United States and Vietnam overcame these seemingly in- surmountable historical confines to advance a forward-looking relationship based on trust, fueled by mutual interest in genuine reconciliation, economic growth, regional security, and common views on the benefits of a rules-based order.

From Hostility to Friendship

Literature on Vietnamese foreign policy cites various factors that have led to the dramatic turnaround in bilateral relations. Two of the most frequently cited are the Doi Moi economic reforms and China. The former transitioned Vietnam from a command economy to a “socialist-oriented” market economy, and opened the country to foreign investments and capital. This made Vietnam’s approach to foreign relations less ideological, and reduced U.S. security concerns. The latter has become a major security concern for Hanoi and Washington in recent years. But the closer relations between Vietnam and the United States have been 25 years in the making.

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Jeffrey Ordaniel is non-resident Adjunct Fellow and Director of Maritime Programs at the Pacific Forum. Concurrently, he is also Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at Tokyo International University (TIU) in Japan. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and specializes in the study of offshore territorial and maritime entitlement disputes in Asia. His teaching and research revolve around maritime security and ocean governance, ASEAN regionalism, and broadly, US alliances and engagements in the Indo-Pacific. From 2016 to 2019, he was based in Honolulu and was the holder of the endowed Admiral Joe Vasey Fellowship at the Pacific Forum.

Photo: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang bump elbows after the signing the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2021. Source: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley