US-Vietnam nuclear deal under scrutiny over enrichment

As further details emerge about a pending US-Vietnamese atomic trade cooperation agreement, it has emerged that Vietnam is likely to keep the right to enrich uranium on its own soil.

This stands in contrast to other bilateral agreements that the US has made concerning nuclear cooperation; similar deals signed with the UAE and pending with Jordan and Saudi Arabia have had a firm “no enrichment” clause attached. Notwithstanding concerns over possible clandestine nuclear activities in nearby Burma, the logic behind the break from this hard-line approach appears to be that the US views SE Asia as less of a proliferation risk than the Middle East and wants to raise its profile in the region. With US companies embedded as suppliers of nuclear technology and materials as a result of the deal, the US would gain trade and diplomatic leverage at a time when China’s influence in the region is very much on the rise. However, North Korea’s recent behaviour must count against the assessment that the region is proliferation-risk free.

Speaking at a US State Department question-and-answer session last week, spokesman P J Crowley reasserted a US commitment to fewer uranium-enriching countries in general, but also insisted that enrichment was an internal Vietnamese issue: “If Vietnam chooses, as part of its own self-interest and exercising its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrichment that is a decision for them to make.”

Vietnam has said that it may well refrain from enrichment in the first place, citing the impact that this would have on diplomatic and trade sensitivities. It has a number of atomic cooperation pacts of its own, most notably with China, India and South Korea.

These concerns already seem to have been partly realised, with the Chinese press in particular accusing the US of overt double standards. Teng Jianqun, deputy director of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, an NGO, commented that the US is “used to employing double standards when dealing with different countries…as a global power that has promoted denuclearization, it has challenged its own reputation and disturbed the preset international order.” Indeed, a series of leading articles in state-run media has criticised the deal over proliferation and destabilisation fears.

US politicians have also been critical of the deal. The ranking Republican on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, released a statement on Friday saying that “Vietnam’s communist regime cannot and must not be trusted… it certainly does not deserve a reward such as a nuclear-cooperation agreement with the U.S. As for the Chinese, so far the government there has not officially commented on the matter.

Vietnam set to retain enrichment right in US atomic pact, GSN

US won’t rule out uranium enrichment, GSN

Daily Press Briefing, US Department of State, 5th August 2010

US, Hanoi in nuclear talks, WSJ

Senior Republican criticises state on Vietnam nuclear deal, WSJ