By Le Dinh Tinh
Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang’s official three-day visit to Washington, DC, from July 24 to July 26 represents a strategic step in implementing bold initiatives set forth earlier by the country’s top policy makers. In 2011, the 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam issued a resolution calling for the country to “comprehensively and effectively carry out external activities and proactively take part in international integration.” By “comprehensively” the Party Congress agreed that Vietnam should integrate not only economically, but also security-wise into the international system.
A retrospective look at Vietnamese foreign policy behavior shows that the country returned to the international community after normalizing relations with China in 1991 and the United States in 1995, and joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995. But it was not until 2011 that Vietnam decided to participate more actively in the international security arena. The argument is that only by contributing to “public goods” can Vietnam be in a better position to benefit from the common dividends.
Two decisions prove that the new rhetoric comes with specific actions. The first is Vietnam’s recent removal of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its territory. On July 3 at the Bien Hoa Airport, 24 pounds of HEU was loaded onto a Russian cargo plane under tight security measures and with at least 50 nuclear experts from many countries as witnesses. This event harbingers a new security stance on the part of Vietnam.
First, it demonstrates Vietnam’s aspiration to abide by international standards in terms of nuclear safety and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Da Lat Reactor Center had earlier dismissed speculation that the 24 pounds of uranium is equivalent to the material required for producing half an atomic bomb.
Second, it reflects Vietnam’s serious commitment to international partners regarding the issue. The returning of 106 fuel assemblies was the result of intensive multilateral cooperation starting in 2007 between the Vietnamese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, and the United States’ National Nuclear Security Administration.
The removal of HEU officially made Vietnam the 11th country to do so following President Obama’s 2009 announcement in Prague of an international program to safeguard nuclear materials. Vietnam supports global denuclearization in accordance with IAEA regulations and UN resolutions, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung attended the Nuclear Security Summits in Washington and Seoul in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In a recent interview, Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh said that in order to maintain its centrality in the region’s evolving security architecture, ASEAN should tap into existing political and security instruments, including the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty.
Vietnam also engages in Track-2 diplomacy to discuss issues pertinent to nuclear safety and security. For example, in December 2010, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, in collaboration with the CSIS Pacific Forum, hosted the 12th meeting of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Study Group on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region in Hanoi.
Another significant gesture was the country’s decision to join UN peacekeeping operations, announced by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the 12th Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore. Given the country’s unique history, Vietnam had long been cautious in sending troops overseas. Now preparatory work for future peacekeeping operations is taking place on the ground. In late June, Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, head of the Defense Ministry’s Steering Committee for participation in UN peacekeeping missions, paid a visit to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and related agencies at the UN headquarters in New York. Earlier, he led a Vietnamese delegation to visit the war-torn South Sudan to observe ongoing peacekeeping operations in that country.
These developments show that Vietnamese leaders have decided to branch out to the international security realm. The logic behind that is a country can only better concentrate on economic integration with a more secure international environment. And from both an economic and security perspective, international integration means having deeper relationships with important partners. President Sang’s visit to Washington is thus the latest and most high-profile step in this effort.
The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Mr. Le Dinh Tinh is Deputy Director General at the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.