(Updated October 2009)
President Bill Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on July 11, 1995. Subsequent to President Clinton's normalization announcement, in August 1995, both nations upgraded their Liaison Offices opened in January 1995 to embassy status. As diplomatic ties between the nations grew, the United States opened a consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam opened a consulate general in San Francisco. In 2009, Vietnam opened a consulate in Houston; the United States received permission to open a consulate in Danang.
U.S. relations with Vietnam have become increasingly cooperative and broad-based in the years since political normalization. A series of bilateral summits have helped drive the improvement of ties, including President George W. Bush's visit to Hanoi in November 2006, President Triet's visit to Washington in June 2007, and Prime Minister Dung's visit to Washington in June 2008. The two countries hold an annual dialogue on human rights, which resumed in 2006 after a two-year hiatus. Vietnam and the United States signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement in July 2000, which went into force in December 2001. In 2003, the two countries signed a Counternarcotics Letter of Agreement (amended in 2006), a Civil Aviation Agreement, and a textile agreement. In January 2007, Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Vietnam. In October 2008, the U.S. and Vietnam inaugurated annual political-military talks and policy planning talks to consult on regional security and strategic issues. Bilateral and regional diplomatic engagement expanded at ASEAN, which Vietnam will chair in 2010, and continues through APEC. The two sides have consulted regularly on a broad range of international issues at the UN Security Council, where Vietnam has a seat (January 2008-December 2009) as a non-permanent member.
Vietnam's suppression of political dissent has continued to be a main issue of contention in relations with the United States, drawing criticism from successive administrations, as well as from members of Congress and the U.S. public. Since spring 2007, Vietnam's government has arrested dozens of political dissidents, and in 2008 and 2009 further tightened controls over the press and freedom of speech. Over the past year, two journalists were arrested and convicted in connection with their reporting on high-level corruption, and several journalists and editors at leading newspapers have been fired. Several Internet bloggers were also jailed after writing about corruption and protesting China's actions in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands; one was convicted and sent to prison.
In contrast, Vietnam has continued to make significant progress on expanding religious freedom. In 2005, Vietnam passed comprehensive religious freedom legislation, outlawing forced renunciations and permitting the official recognition of new denominations. Since that time, the government has granted official national recognition to a number of religions and religious groups, including seven more Protestant denominations, and has registered hundreds of local congregations. As a result, in November 2006, the Department of State lifted the designation of Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern," based on a determination that the country was no longer a serious violator of religious freedoms, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act. This decision was reaffirmed by the Department of State in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Nevertheless, there is room for further progress. The government's slow pace of church registration and harassment of certain religious leaders for their political activism, including leaders of the unrecognized United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, were an ongoing source of U.S. concern, as was violence against the Plum Village order at Bat Nha Pagoda in Lam Dong.
As of September 15, 2009, the U.S. Government listed 1,731 Americans unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, including 1,319 in Vietnam. Since 1973, 915 Americans have been accounted for, including 649 in Vietnam.
Additionally, the Department of Defense has confirmed that of the 196 individuals who were "last known alive" (LKA) in Vietnam, the U.S. Government has determined the fate of all but 27. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting command (JPAC) conducts four major investigation and recovery periods a year in Vietnam, during which specially trained U.S. military and civilian personnel investigate and excavate hundreds of cases in pursuit of fullest possible accounting. Accessing restricted areas by using unilateral Vietnamese investigation and recovery teams has been a recent highlight of cooperation by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as was the June 2009 coastal search mission by the oceanographic survey ship USNS Heezen, the first of its kind. The U.S. would still like to see the provision of archival documents related to U.S. losses along the wartime Ho Chi Minh Trail, as well as more openness in general with regard to Vietnam’s wartime archives. The United States considers achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing and unaccounted for in Indochina to be one of its highest priorities with Vietnam.
Since entry into force of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement on December 10, 2001, increased trade between the U.S. and Vietnam, combined with large-scale U.S. investment in Vietnam, evidence the maturing U.S.-Vietnam economic relationship. In 2008, the United States exported $2.8 billion of goods to Vietnam and imported $12.9 billion of goods from Vietnam. Similarly, U.S. companies continue to invest directly in the Vietnamese economy. During 2008, the U.S. private sector committed $1.49 billion to Vietnam in foreign direct investment. Another sign of the expanding bilateral relationship is the signing of a Bilateral Air Transport Agreement in December 2003. Several U.S. carriers already have third-party code sharing agreements with Vietnam Airlines. Direct flights between Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco began in December 2004. The Bilateral Air Transport Agreement was amended in October 2008 to fully open markets for cargo air transportation. Vietnam and the United States also signed a Bilateral Maritime Agreement in March 2007 that opened the maritime transport and services industry of Vietnam to U.S. firms.
The United States and Vietnam engage in a wide range of cooperative activities in the areas of peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, maritime and border security, law enforcement, and nonproliferation. In June 2008, Prime Minister Dung announced plans to take part in the multinational Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) to train international peacekeepers. Many of these topics are discussed in annual bilateral defense discussions. In April 2009, senior officials from Vietnam's Navy and Air Force toured the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which was berthed in international waters 270 miles off the southern coast of Vietnam. In June 2008, Vietnam hosted a port call to Nha Trang by the hospital ship USNS Mercy, providing medical and dental treatment to over 11,000 Vietnamese patients. This followed Vietnam's hosting of visits by five U.S. Navy vessels in 2007, including a port call to Danang by the humanitarian supply ship USS Peleliu, whose personnel carried out numerous medical and engineering projects. Vietnam continues to observe multinational exercises such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), organized by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. An active partner in nonproliferation regimes, Vietnam also takes full advantage of expertise, equipment, and training available under the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program.