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18/09/2010 | U.S.-Vietnam Nuclear Deal Reflects Bilateral, Regional Priorities

Saurav Jha

Nuclear energy's recent renaissance has seen the United States firm up nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of emerging nuclear nations.


However the most eye-catching so far is the proposed deal with Vietnam, which stands out not only for its departure from the standard template of such deals, as epitomized by the U.S.-UAE nuclear agreement, but also because it comes at a time when Sino-American interests have been at odds in the South China Sea. More broadly, the deal reflects the unfolding American strategy to counter Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nonproliferation hawks are up in arms that the proposed deal with Vietnam will not include a promise on Hanoi's behalf to forego fuel-cycle activities such as enrichment. This is in sharp contrast to recent nuclear cooperation agreements signed by the U.S with emerging nuclear countries in the Middle East. Indeed, it was thought for a while that the U.S.-UAE accord would serve as the "gold standard" by which Washington's deals with new nuclear countries would be measured.

Clearly, the motives and imperatives driving Washington's approach to nuclear cooperation with Vietnam are quite different. During her visit to Hanoi this July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that "the Obama administration was prepared to take U.S-Vietnam ties to the next level." The rhetoric matches that used by Washington in its dealings with India over the last decade. Once more it seems that Washington is eyeing a crucial strategic partnership in Asia with a rising economic nation once on the other side of the Cold War divide. 

Also as with India, it seems that Washington has decided to make an exceptional nuclear deal the vanguard of its détente with Hanoi. This of course sits very well with a steadily industrializing Vietnam looking to keep its competitive edge through a substantial embrace of nuclear power. 

The proposed nature of the U.S.-Vietnam nuclear deal reflects that both countries are seeking a strategic industrial partnership; a restrictive deal such as the one signed with the UAE would preclude the possibility of transferring many dual-use technologies that would be key facilitators of such a partnership. Here, Clinton's remarks during her trip were also revealing: "As Vietnam embarks on labor and other reforms, the American businesses that are investing in Vietnam can provide expertise that will aid Vietnam's economic and infrastructure development." 

Critics of the proposed deal who point to the U.S.-UAE agreement to argue that it will not necessarily translate into commercial gains for the U.S. nuclear sector overlook or misread a key factor driving that previous agreement. By forsaking its right to a full nuclear cycle, the UAE provided the U.S. with a model agreement for its policy aims in the proliferation-sensitive Middle East. As a quid pro quo, the UAE was given the leeway to choose the reactor supplier, in this case South Korea's KEPCO, that best suited its needs. By contrast, Vietnam has an incentive to choose U.S.-based suppliers for its nuclear program given its desire to build strong commercial and technological ties with U.S. industrial partners, and little leverage to exclude them given the generous terms of the deal now on offer.

Moreover, as in the case with India, a U.S.-Vietnam nuclear agreement will likely be followed by U.S. weapon sales to Vietnam, with both sides looking to increase military interoperability. Vietnam will be particularly interested in specific U.S. technology that can help it counter China's increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Such potential sales may ultimately have a greater impact on the U.S. job market than any actual nuclear trade, given that the mostly Japanese-owned U.S. nuclear sector is looking to revive itself with French assistance, while the U.S. defense industry continues to be vibrant.

Vietnams' proud martial history and relatively large-sized military make it an ideal core member of any future ASEAN-centric security architecture in the South China Sea. Even in bilateral partnership with the U.S., Vietnam may prove invaluable to the United States' stated aim of supporting a multilateral diplomatic process, free from coercion and the use or threat of force, to resolve the various territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The Vietnamese navy is already investing in a significant undersea capability, having ordered six improved Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines from Russia. In fact, Vietnam's desire to keep its options open on uranium enrichment may be driven by a desire to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability in the future, which would be better-suited than conventional submarines for the continuous patrol of disputed islands and off-shore installations in the South China Sea. Be that as it may, Vuong Huu Tan, president of the government-affiliated Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, has made it clear that for the time being, Vietnam has no intention of pursuing enrichment due to its cost and political sensitivity. 

The heightened profile of U.S.-Vietnam strategic dealings has come at a time when the Chinese have declared the South China Sea a "core interest." Washington has replied by identifying an economically productive partner that can also stand up for itself in a conflict, especially with American assistance. For Vietnam, America's support and its own growing economic prowess will not only act as a bulwark to China's self-proclaimed "indisputable sovereignty" over natural resources in the South China Sea, but will also help Hanoi achieve its ambitions as a future global middle power, in a process similar to Turkey's rise through the Cold War period.

The Chinese have of course not taken kindly to these developments. Rear Adm. Yang Yi, in a Liberation Army Daily commentary, explicitly accused Washington of an "increasingly tight encirclement of China." However, the fact remains that the U.S. seems to be far more successful at wooing emerging Asian states than China, whose "peaceful rise" clearly fails to inspire confidence beyond Pyongyang and Islamabad. 

Of course, the ability to push through country-specific nuclear agreements does no harm to Washington's cause. It remains to be seen, however, if the U.S. Congress, which must okay the deal, will share the Obama administration's strategic vision on Vietnam.

**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," was published in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at sjha1618 AT gmail DOT com.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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