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US-Vietnam nuclear deal has experts divided

The United States and Vietnam are close to a nuclear deal that would allow Hanoi the right to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. While China and some experts have criticized it, others view it more positively.

US President Barack Obama welcomes the President of China Hu Jintao to the Nuclear Security Summit

The US-Vietnam deal can be interpreted as a move to counter Chinese influence

Roughly six months after signing a memorandum of understanding on civilian nuclear cooperation, Washington and Hanoi, according to various reports, are now in the final stages of reaching a deal on sharing nuclear technology.

The agreement will likely lack a provision that prohibits Vietnam to engage in uranium enrichment and reprocessing plutonium, steps that aside from its civilian use are also essential to produce nuclear weapons.

To cope with growing energy needs of its rapidly expanding economy, Hanoi wants to build 13 nuclear power plants by 2030, with the first reactor to produce energy scheduled for 2020. According to Vietnamese media reports, the first power plant will be built with Russian technology.

Neighboring China, which has ongoing border disputes with Vietnam, has carefully calibrated its response to the US-Vietnam deal. A foreign ministry spokesman acknowledged every nation's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy as long as it doesn't engage in proliferation.

'Double standard'

However, the deputy director of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association accused the US of applying a double standard and of destabilizing the international order.

"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," Teng Jianqun was quoted in the official China Daily newspaper.

Chinese experts are not alone in criticizing the deal.

Charles K. Ebinger, the director of the Brookings Institution's Energy Security Initiative, also charged that the agreement establishes an "unconcealed double-standard" and urged the Obama administration to adopt a "singular nuclear energy cooperation policy" applicable to all countries.

Critics of the deal refer to the nuclear cooperation agreement Washington signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last year. As part of the deal, the UAE accepted to completely forego enrichment and reprocessing activities. Due to those tough conditions - essentially waiving the right for enrichment granted to every country that has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - the agreement with the UAE was dubbed the ‘gold standard' of civilian nuclear cooperation deals.

By not pushing Vietnam, which is a signatory of the NPT and has stated that it has no intention to pursue enrichment itself, to accept the same conditions, the Obama administration will make it harder to apply the gold standard in negotiations with other countries, argue critics. What's more, they add, the move is counterproductive to Barack Obama's grand vision of reaching a world without nuclear weapons.

'Important step'

However, other experts think this criticism is overblown.

Vietnamese workers in Hanoi produce garments for a German textile company

Vietnam wants nuclear power plants to fuel its rapidly growing economy

Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington DC, notes that most nuclear deals actually don't restrict countries to enrich and simply don't explicitly mention the issue.

"The only deal that didn't do that was the deal the United States struck with United Arab Emirates which was finalized last year and was negotiated under the Bush administration," he told Deutsche Welle. "And that deal was kind of unusual because the US wanted to set the gold standard for how countries in the Middle East should deal with nuclear energy."

While Sebastian Harnisch, professor of international relations at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg, understands why some people perceive a double standard in those different nuclear deals, he points out that the US-Vietnam deal is entirely in line with the NPT which foresees the peaceful use of the nuclear energy under the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards.

"The signal that peaceful nations in full compliance with the NPT have a right to the full fuel cycle is an important step right now," he told Deutsche Welle, adding that many countries like Brazil and Turkey worry that the US wants to restrict their ability to pursue the full fuel cycle in light of Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Besides the obvious economic aspects of supplying nuclear technology to Vietnam, Harnisch believes Washington has two additional motives for the deal:

"First of all they want to signal to China that they are hedging against Beijing's influence in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea in particular. And secondly of course, it's a signal to the Vietnamese government that the normalization is an ongoing process and that the United States is interested in deepening that relationship."

Not as problematic as US-India deal

Pomper agrees that everything that is done politically in that region is done with Beijing in mind.

Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee with former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

The controversial US-India nuclear deal was finalized by the Bush administration

"But I think the more dangerous deal in terms of nuclear energy that we did to counter China was the US-India deal which was a clear case - much more than the Vietnam case - of sacrificing our non-proliferation principles for strategic reasons."

After all, the US had agreed to cooperate with India despite the fact that the country had not signed the NPT and had amassed a stockpile of nuclear weapons.

For Pomper, the US-Vietnam deal then is more about establishing good relations between the former enemies and business ties. "And I am sure Germany just like the United States will be looking to try to sell nuclear technology to Vietnam."

Aside from some verbal criticism out of Beijing, the experts don't think the issue will negatively impact US-China relations. They also don't expect Hanoi to pursue nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

Beijing for its part, has also signed a nuclear deal with Hanoi and is planning to sell two nuclear power plants to Pakistan.

How long it will take to complete the final negotiations for the US-Vietnam deal is still open. But since the agreement - unlike the US-India deal - is expected to comply with the US nuclear non-proliferation act of 1978 it doesn't require explicit approval by Congress to become law.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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