The US and Vietnam yesterday signed a pact that would allow the transfer of nuclear technology to the Southeast Asian nation and open the way for US investment in the burgeoning industry, in another sign that Washington is seeking stronger economic and strategic ties in the region.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US-Vietnam Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement would allow US firms to tap Vietnam’s future nuclear power market, although the US Department of State said the deal would not allow Vietnam to enrich or reprocess US-origin nuclear materials.
“This agreement will create numerous opportunities for our businesses,” Kerry told Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Brunei. “Obviously our nuclear cooperation is quite significant.”
Vietnam is working with Russia to build its first nuclear plant next year for completion in 2020 in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan, as demand for energy grows rapidly in response to economic growth of about 5 percent a year.
It has also signed an agreement with a Japanese consortium to develop a second nuclear power plant in the same province, with two reactors to become operational in 2024 or 2025.
Vietnam is the second-largest market after China for nuclear power in East Asia, which is expected to grow to US$50 billion by 2030, Kerry said.
The US has moved to improve economic and security ties with Vietnam, part of its strategic rebalancing toward Asia that some see as a policy to counter China’s rising clout. China’s assertive claims over the South China Sea have raised tensions with Vietnam, as well as other Southeast Asian nations.
Vietnam’s poor human rights record is a major obstacle to closer ties and US labor and human rights groups have urged US President Barack Obama to suspend free-trade negotiations with Vietnam because of its treatment of workers and government critics.
Analysts say a sharp increase in the past few years in arrests and convictions of government detractors, in particular, bloggers, could complicate the nuclear deal as US Congress needs to be convinced Vietnam is changing its tack.
The deal is to be submitted to Obama for his review before it is sent to the US Congress for its approval by the end of the year, a US official said.
“Getting to this stage moves us closer to an expanded civil nuclear cooperation with Vietnam,” said the official, who briefed reporters in Washington. “Vietnam is actively taking steps now toward development of a robust domestic infrastructure to support a nuclear energy program.”
With Vietnam at an early stage of nuclear development, the official said the agreement provides the basis for US firms to enter the market early as it builds nuclear power plants and for the US government to ensure the proper safeguards.
The US official also said the agreement “will also strengthen the Obama administration’s long-standing policy of limiting the spread of [nuclear] enrichment and reprocessing capabilities around the world.”
Asked whether the provisions of the deal would ward off any concern that Vietnam might someday seek nuclear weapons capability, the official said: “That certainly would close off one path toward that.”