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Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3 — Foes to Partners: 25 Years of U.S.-Vietnam Relations

  • Laura Abbott

    Security Cooperation Officer, United States Air Force

  • Phan Xuan Dung

    Graduate Student, RSIS, NTU

  • Ki Suh Jung

    Foreign Area Officer, United States Navy

  • Tu Lai

    Research Fellow, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

  • John Lichtefeld

    Nonresident Fellow, Southeast Asia Program, Stimson Center

  • Hanh Nguyen

    Young Leader, Pacific Forum

  • Jeffrey Ordaniel

    Director of Maritime Programs, Pacific Forum

  • Pham Ngoc Minh Trang

    Lecturer, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City


About this Volume

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].


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. In this volume, seven next-generation scholars and policy analysts from the United States and Vietnam examined the 25 years of U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations from various perspectives. They provided fresh insights and offered policy prescriptions for moving the relationship forward.

Tu Lai’s chapter discusses the motivations of the two countries for closer relations and reviews the evolution of bilateral ties since the Obama administration. Tu Lai argues that the bilateral relationship is already a ‘strategic partnership’ minus the name, and that Vietnam and the United States have more leeway to move the relations forward.

Dung Xuan Phan unpacks the U.S. policy toward the Agent Orange issue, ‘an overlooked or less emphasized aspect of the warming U.S.-Vietnam bilateral ties that carries significant symbolic, political, legal, and humanitarian implications.’

John Lichtefeld explores the evolution of U.S.-Vietnam cooperation on the Mekong, tracing its long history, from early support for the nascent Mekong Committee in the late 1950s to the creation of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009 and its expansion into the Mekong-U.S. Partnership in late 2020.

Laura Abbott argues that while there is potential for expanding U.S.-Vietnam strategic engagement in the coming decades, an expanded security partnership has to address three main constraints: 1) differences in governance, including on human rights; 2) Vietnam’s inescapable geographic proximity to China, including economic vulnerability; and 3) Vietnam’s “Three Nos” security policy: no alliances, no forward basing in Vietnam, and no aligning with a second country against a third.

Hanh Nguyen suggests that Washington and Hanoi should focus on strengthening ASEAN’s strategic autonomy. She argues that doing so would help address regional challenges while also providing a more principled rationale for continued U.S. presence, engagements, and leadership in Southeast Asia, beyond merely countering China’s illegal and disruptive behavior.

Ki Suh Jung argues policymakers in Washington and Hanoi should focus on policy objectives that overlap but prioritize those that are high impact and doable given the two countries’ ‘divergent political systems, foreign policy priorities, and immediate needs of their citizenry.’

Pham Ngoc Minh Trang proposes a legal alliance for maritime security in the South China Sea as a pathway for stronger U.S.-Vietnam ties moving forward. Her chapter outlines several steps to realize this legal alliance, arguing that ‘protecting the universally recognized principles of international law, such as the principles of freedom of navigation, will further add legitimacy to U.S.-Vietnam cooperation without necessarily antagonizing or appearing to target third countries.’

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Table of Contents

  1. From Foes to Partners: 25 Years of U.S.-Vietnam RelationsJeffrey Ordaniel
  2. Vietnam-U.S. Relations at 25: Retrospect and Prospect | Tu Lai
  3. Evolution Of U.S.-Vietnam Cooperation on the Mekong | John Lichtefeld
  4. U.S. Ex-Gratia Approach Toward the Agent Orange Legacy in VietnamDung Xuan Phan
  5. Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-Vietnam Security CooperationLaura A. Abbott
  6. U.S.-Vietnam Partnership in the Post-Covid Era: A Recalibration Towards Intra-ASEAN Integration | Hanh Nguyen
  7. Noise and Signal: Pursuing Common Objectives to Optimize Security Cooperation Between the United States and Vietnam | Ki Suh Jung
  8. A Legal Alliance for Maritime Security in the South China Sea: A Pathway for Stronger U.S. and Vietnam TiesPham Ngoc Minh Trang

Photo: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang enter the Vietnamese Ministry after a welcoming ceremony at in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2021. Source: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley