- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

BANGKOK (AP) - After tanks from communist North Vietnam burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon 40 years ago Thursday, Washington imposed a punitive economic embargo that kept Hanoi from receiving assistance even from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.

For decision-makers in Hanoi and Washington, an anniversary more significant to relations today comes this summer: The countries restored diplomatic relations in July 1995. Then-President Bill Clinton also lifted the embargo and brokered a bilateral trade agreement; when he finally visited the Vietnamese capital in 2000, he received a rock-star welcome.

The countries’ ties, though strained on issues such as human rights, has grown since then, thanks in part to a mutual rival: China.

Bilateral friendship was formalized in 2013, when Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang visited the White House and with President Barack Obama launched a “Comprehensive Partnership” for cooperation in political and diplomatic relations, trade and economic ties, defense, the war legacy and many other issues. The two countries pledged respect for “each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

Both countries regard with wariness the offshore territorial claims by Beijing in the South China Sea, including in traditionally Vietnamese waters.

Washington frames its South China Sea policy in terms of freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, but its credibility as a Pacific power rests on showing a little muscle and tightening military alliances. It would like to have Hanoi as a partner.

The first U.S. Navy goodwill and friendship port call in Vietnam took place in 2003, and since then the two countries have held an increasing number of noncombatant exercises and high-level defense dialogues. At the end of 2013, Washington agreed to provide Vietnam with five patrol boats as part of an $18 million maritime security assistance package.

But an actual alliance with the United States would antagonize China, Vietnam’s big brother both ideologically and historically. After Vietnam offended China by invading Cambodia in 1978, Beijing launched a brief but bloody border war. Such a crude response is unlikely today, but China - Vietnam’s biggest trading partner - has other tools at hand.

Nguyen Phu Trong, as Communist Party chief - effectively the top leader in Vietnam - is expected to make an unprecedented visit to Washington later this year. To allay Chinese anxiety, he led a top-level delegation to Beijing earlier this month to affirm their traditional ties.

Shared interests in boosting business have also been a big factor in the evolution of relations. Hanoi and Washington both see benefit in Vietnam joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial and yet-to-be-finalized regional trade pact. But some U.S. lawmakers feel that Hanoi should clean up its human rights act before getting trade privileges predicted to substantially pump up its economy.

The human rights issue also stands in the way of the United States lifting a ban on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam. It was partially lifted to allow the maritime security aid package, but Hanoi feels it should be cleared as a sign of trust that Washington doesn’t lump it in with countries such as North Korea.

Hanoi and Washington both see benefit in Vietnam joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial and yet-to-be-finalized regional trade pact. But some U.S. lawmakers feel that Hanoi should clean up its human rights act before getting trade privileges predicted to substantially pump up its economy.

While Vietnam’s long-term human rights trend has been a sharp improvement on the immediate post-war era of re-education camps, its record on freedom of expression is poor. The Committee to Protect Journalists this month listed it among the 10 worst countries worldwide in restricting press freedom, alongside such nations as Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Hard-liners in Hanoi regard the human-rights issue as a stalking horse for regime change.

Apart from military ties, Vietnam’s relations with the United States are already on par with those of other Southeast Asian nations.

VIP visits are common. Just this month Vietnam hosted Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus for a joint navy activity, and a congressional delegation led by Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi met with President Sang.

The United States is Vietnam’s largest single-country export market, and Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. compete strongly with those from the more mature economies of Malaysia and Thailand.

“Over the last 19 years, our trade relationship has grown from almost nothing to over $35 billion in 2014, and could possibly reach $40 billion this year,” U.S. Ambassador in Hanoi Ted Osius told the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam this month. “U.S. companies have invested billions here, integrating Vietnam into the global supply chain, creating quality jobs for Vietnamese workers, and opening a new market for U.S. goods and services.”

Vietnam has about 16,000 students attending school in the United States, more than any other Southeast Asian nation and fourth in East Asia after China, Japan and South Korea.

Surprisingly, the legacies of war have served as vehicles for engagement.

U.S. rapprochement with Vietnam began when President Reagan in 1987 sent a special envoy to Vietnam for discussions on what was termed humanitarian issues but focused - from the U.S, point of view - on the politically hot issue of resolving the fate of America’s wartime missing in action.

When the U.S. Office for Prisoners of War/MIA Affairs opened in Hanoi in 1991, it was the first U.S. government facility in Vietnam since 1975. MIA affairs remain a major area of cooperation, in more recent years expanded to include substantial U.S. assistance in locating Vietnam’s own many missing. At the end of the war, there were 1,971 Americans unaccounted for in Vietnam. About 700 of those have since been identified.

Other areas of cooperation focus on mitigating the dangers posed by unexploded U.S. bombs and Agent Orange, the widely deployed herbicide linked to cancer and birth deformities. Osius said the U.S. has so far spent more than $65 million to cleanup dioxin, a toxic component of Agent Orange, and $80 million to clean up unexploded ordnance.

Even the heartrending tragedy of the “boat people,” the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who risked their lives fleeing the communist takeover, has become a force for warmer ties. More than 1.5 million people of ethnic Vietnamese origin live in the United States.

“An increasingly influential Vietnamese diaspora will play an ever more important role in strengthening linkages between the two countries,” Osius said.

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