From Bitter Enemies to Strategic Partners: The Remarkable Transformation of US–Vietnam Relations Since the 1973 Withdrawal Published March 29, 2023 By Dr. Perrin Atreides Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press -- Read PDF version here. Abstract The Vietnam War was a highly divisive conflict that left a lasting imprint on both the United States and Vietnam. After years of enmity and isolation, the two countries have evolved into partners, with a focus on economic cooperation and regional security. The challenges and opportunities in the relationship between the two countries include ongoing human rights concerns, a complex trade relationship, and China’s growing influence in the region. Additionally, Vietnam has the potential to play a larger role in the Quad Plus construct, a grouping that includes the US, Japan, Australia, India, and other regional powers working together on common interests. The evolving relationship between the United States and Vietnam is an important component of regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. *** The Vietnam War was a significant conflict in American history that had a profound impact on the United States and Vietnam. After years of bitter fighting and immense casualties, the withdrawal of American troops on 29 March 1973, marked the end of American involvement in the conflict. Despite the war’s divisive legacy, the relationship between the United States and Vietnam has evolved considerably over the years. Today, the two countries enjoy a constructive partnership that focuses on economic cooperation and regional security. This article will examine the historical context of the US–Vietnam relationship, exploring the long and complex road that led from enmity to partnership. It will then examine the current state of relations between the two nations, including their ongoing economic cooperation and joint efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region. The Road to Partnership The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 was marked by bitterness on both sides, but particularly so in the United States, where the conflict had divided the nation and led to significant loss of life and resources. In the years following the war, diplomatic relations between the two countries were nonexistent, and Vietnam was isolated from the international community. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam was left in a state of political and economic turmoil. The country was ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, and the new government’s policies aimed to eliminate the remnants of the old regime and consolidate power. This led to a period of political repression and economic mismanagement, which contributed to Vietnam’s international isolation. Moreover, the United States was reluctant to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, as the war had left a bitter legacy on both sides. The US government believed that Vietnam had violated the Paris Peace Accords, which had ended the war in 1973, and had not fulfilled its obligation to account for American prisoners of war. As a result, Washington imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam, which lasted until 1994. In addition to US sanctions, Vietnam also faced challenges in gaining acceptance from the international community. Its human rights record and lack of political freedom were major points of contention, and many countries were reluctant to engage with Vietnam diplomatically or economically. China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979 further complicated the situation. Although the United States did not intervene directly, the Vietnamese government viewed Washington as a potential ally against China. However, the Chinese invasion also demonstrated to the Vietnamese that they could not rely on the Soviet Union for protection, leading to a gradual shift in Vietnamese foreign policy. Over time, Vietnam began to pursue a more independent foreign policy, seeking to balance its relationships with major powers such as China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. This helped to lay the groundwork for improved relations with the United States in the 1990s and beyond. Vietnam’s economy struggled in the years following the war. The country’s leaders realized that they needed to find ways to integrate Vietnam into the global economy, and that meant establishing relations with the United States and other countries. It was not until the 1990s that Vietnam began to take steps to improve relations with the United States, including allowing the search for missing US soldiers and signing a bilateral trade agreement. These efforts paved the way for the eventual normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1995. Today, the US–Vietnam relationship is characterized by a focus on economic cooperation, particularly in the areas of trade and investment. Vietnam has become an important trading partner for the United States, with bilateral trade reaching more than USD 90 billion in 2021. Additionally, the two countries have also cooperated on regional security issues, particularly in the context of the Quad Plus grouping. Challenges and Opportunities As we look at the future of US–Vietnam relations, there are both challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. One major challenge is China’s ongoing territorial claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with those of Vietnam and other countries in the region. The United States has expressed support for Vietnam’s stance on these disputes, and the two countries have conducted joint naval exercises in the region to demonstrate their commitment to freedom of navigation. Another challenge is the issue of human rights in Vietnam. Despite some progress in recent years, the Vietnamese government still restricts political dissent and freedom of expression, and there are concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities and the independence of the judiciary. The United States has pushed Vietnam to improve its human rights record, and some progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. On the economic front, Vietnam has made significant strides in recent years, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The country has opened to foreign investment and trade, and the United States has been one of Vietnam’s top trading partners. The two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement in 2019, which is expected to increase trade and investment between them. There is also potential for Vietnam to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad is a strategic partnership among the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. The Quad Plus expands the partnership to include other countries in the Indo-Pacific region that share similar concerns about regional security, trade, and maintaining the liberal rules-based international order. The grouping provides an opportunity for like-minded countries to work together on issues of mutual concern, including freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and promoting free trade. Vietnam’s strategic location and growing economy make it an attractive partner for the Quad Plus, and there is potential for Vietnam to play a larger role in this construct. By doing so, Vietnam could contribute to the Quad Plus’s efforts to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region while promoting regional stability and prosperity. Vietnam’s potential role in the Quad Plus can bring several benefits. Firstly, it can enhance Vietnam’s security and stability, particularly in the South China Sea, where tensions with China have been mounting in recent years. As a member of the grouping, Vietnam can have a stronger voice in shaping the region’s security architecture, ensuring that its own interests are well represented. Secondly, Vietnam can benefit from increased economic cooperation with the Quad Plus members, as these countries are among the largest trading partners and investors in the region. The grouping can provide Vietnam with greater access to technology, capital, and expertise, which can help accelerate its economic development. However, there are also potential challenges to Vietnam’s participation in the Quad Plus. For instance, Vietnam may face pressure from China to limit its engagement with the grouping, which could strain its relations with Beijing. Moreover, some in Vietnam may be hesitant to join a grouping that is perceived as being led by the United States, given the country’s history of involvement in the Vietnam War. Additionally, the Quad Plus is still a nascent grouping, and it remains to be seen how effective it will be in countering China’s rise in the region. Overall, the US–Vietnam relationship has come a long way since the end of the Vietnam War. While there are still challenges to be addressed, there are also many opportunities for the two countries to work together on issues of mutual interest and benefit. Conclusion The US–Vietnam relationship has come a long way since the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. Despite initial hostility, the two countries have gradually developed a cooperative partnership focused on economic ties and regional security. However, there are still challenges that must be addressed, such as Vietnam’s human rights record, which has strained relations with the United States. Additionally, China’s growing influence in the region poses a threat to both countries, and Vietnam’s strategic location and growing economy make it an attractive partner for the Quad Plus grouping. Looking ahead, the United States and Vietnam have opportunities to deepen their relationship through continued economic cooperation, increased military exchanges, and expanded cultural and educational exchanges. Vietnam has made significant strides in recent years, and as its economy continues to grow, it will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in the region. The United States must navigate the delicate balance of supporting Vietnam’s rise without undermining its sovereignty or human rights. The Quad Plus grouping provides a potential framework for such cooperation and could serve as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the region. As the US–Vietnam relationship evolves, it is important to remember the lessons of the past and the sacrifices made by both countries during the Vietnam War. Through continued dialogue and cooperation, the two countries can build a constructive partnership that benefits the Indo-Pacific region and the world as a whole. µ Dr. Perrin Atreides Dr. Atreides is an authority in Indo-Pacific studies with a focus on South Asian geopolitics, security, and culture. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has more than 20 years of experience in international relations and international security studies. Perrin is a former US Army intelligence officer and draws upon his personal and professional experiences to bring a unique perspective to his writing on Indo-Pacific affairs. Note: Perrin Atreides is a nom de plume for a well-positioned US government employee who must maintain anonymity in scholarly publications. Disclaimer The views and opinions expressed or implied in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.