Joshua PollackDoes Jordan Want It If Vietnam Has It?

Vuong Huu Tan, director of the Vietnam Atomic Energy Institute, a government office, said Vietnamese and U.S. officials reached an initial agreement on nuclear cooperation in March and hope to finalize the pact later this year. He said Vietnam didn’t plan to enrich uranium, “as it is sensitive to Vietnam to do so.”

— Jay Solomon, “U.S., Hanoi in Nuclear Talks: Vietnam Plan to Enrich Uranium May Undercut Nonproliferation Efforts, Rile China,” Wall Street Journal, August 3

Yes, girls and boys, it’s time for another sequel to Attack of the Senseless Headline. Unfortunately, the problems with this story go beyond just a sub-head that contradicts what’s beneath it.

What Jay Solomon’s article tells us, factually speaking, is that the draft nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Vietnam (“123 agreement”) doesn’t involve a blanket prohibition on enriching uranium that the U.S. someday might supply.

It turns out that this is not so unusual. Restrictions on reprocessing are more common — see, for example, the South Korea 123 agreement. That makes perfect sense. If you don’t want another country to enrich your uranium, you simply don’t sell them natural (i.e., unenriched) uranium. But if you sell them reactor fuel, the reprocessing issue may well come up. Just ask the South Koreans.

The article itself is rather argumentative and light on substance. It asserts that the Chinese will be riled by a U.S.-Vietnam agreement. No explanation and no evidence for this thesis is given. Have the Chinese asserted exclusive nuclear export rights to Vietnam? Do they find nuclear power in Vietnam threatening? (Nobody from China is quoted.) As the article makes clear, Washington and Beijing have plenty of other things to argue about, anyway.

Fear of an Arab Centrifuge

When not trying to spark a new trans-Pacific dispute, Solomon strains to start an argument between the Administration and Congress, and between Washington and its Arab allies. It’s not fair that the United Arab Emirates 123 restricts both enrichment and reprocessing of U.S.-origin material, we are told, since the draft Vietnam agreement apparently just restricts reprocessing. This discriminates against the Middle East and will cause the Jordanians and Saudis to balk at adopting the stricter provision, the article tells us. Well, maybe they’ll balk, but according to this earlier article by some guy named Jay Solomon at the Wall Street Journal, they were already balking.

When it comes to state-to-state comparisons, it’s illuminating to consider the language that the Emirates and the United States settled on:

The Government of the United States of America confirms that the fields of cooperation, terms and conditions accorded by the United States of America to the United Arab Emirates for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy shall be no less favorable in scope and effect than those which may be accorded, from time to time, to any other non-nuclear weapon State in the Middle East in a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement. If this is, at any time, not the case, at the request of the Government of the United Arab Emirates the Government of the United States of America will provide full details of the improved terms agreed with another non-nuclear-weapon State in the Middle East, to the extent consistent with its national legislation and regulations and any relevant agreements with such other non-nuclear weapon State, and if requested by the Government of the United Arab Emirates, will consult with the Government of the United Arab Emirates regarding the possibility of amending this Agreement so that the position described above is restored.

In other words, if the U.S. cuts another Arab state a deal with easier terms, the Emiratis can get the same. No mention of Vietnam, possibly because it’s thousands of miles away.

From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, Iran’s fuel-cycle technology right next door is bad enough; adding something similar in Saudi Arabia doesn’t help them any. So it’s better to try to set a new regional norm, with an escape clause if it fails to take hold. Unfortunately, the view from Amman and Riyadh these days seems a bit different; the rulers must balance what their Arab neighbors are likely do in the absence of mutual restraint against how their elites are likely to feel about not getting what Iran already has, especially if somebody from the West says they’d be better off without it. (Postcolonialism, meet the security dilemma. Security dilemma, meet postcolonialism.) It’s discouraging to point this out, but the region is already up to its eyeballs in ballistic missiles for the same reason.

A Perpetual Piece of the Action

The good news is, it’s not as easy to get centrifuges spinning now that A.Q. Khan is out of business — and if Libya is any indication, it’s not that easy, period. Plus, the major nuclear exporters are on record that they’re not about to go spreading this stuff around. That certainly helps, but is it enough? (In case you missed it, this was the subject of my latest column in the Bulletin.)

There’s a debate over whether it helps or hurts more to try to impose formal restrictions on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing. A less confrontational approach, one that doesn’t injure anyone’s pride, often may be preferable: Vietnam’s declared lack of plans for enrichment suggest that this approach can work, at least in some places.

The complicating factor is the part about “some places.” Obviously excepting Burma, where ASEAN is Kantian, the Middle East is Hobbesian. It’s more competitive there, shall we say. Undoubtedly inspired by the prominent example across the water at Bushehr, at least half the countries now planning to build their first nuclear reactor are Middle Eastern. And sometimes it seems that a Middle Eastern country without a secret nuclear weapons program is like a day without sunshine. (That’s the dehydrated version of a recent book by Etel Solingen. Just add case studies.)

Let’s put it this way. Basically, there are two kinds of Middle Eastern states today: those buying a reactor from South Korea, and those buying a reactor from North Korea. Whether the reactors come with enrichment and/or reprocessing is a problem for everyone in the region, and for the rest of the world as well. Wherever the answers to this dilemma may lie, it’s probably not in Hanoi or Saigon.

Update | 5:47 pm. Here’s the Google translation of a Chinese Foreign Ministry response to a question about this article:

The Chinese do not know the specific circumstances.  We always believe that all countries have the right to peaceful use of nuclear and through international cooperation.  At the same time, countries should also conscientiously perform their non-proliferation obligations.

Doesn’t sound very riled, does it? (Solomon’s article states that it went to press without waiting for input from the Foreign Ministry.)

Here’s what the State Department spokesman had to say about the story:

The United States and Vietnam are engaged in a so-called, “123” negotiation that would involve civilian nuclear technology. That negotiation is ongoing, so it’s hard to cite at this particular point what the specifics of an agreement would be. That’s – these are still issues that are under discussion.

In terms of concerns that were expressed in the paper, we work directly with specific countries. We evaluate their energy needs and on a case-by-case, country-by-country, region-by-region basis. We have completed a successful agreement with the UAE. That agreement is what we would consider to be the gold standard. And in that agreement, which is very important and very valuable, the UAE pursuing its own interests, decided that it would forego the right of enrichment that every country in the world has.

We certainly want to see other countries make that same kind of decision and that same kind of agreement in their own interest as the Administration pursues its nonproliferation agenda. But again, these are discussions that we’re having with countries that are interested in this kind of agreement, and while we will pursue our nonproliferation objectives through these kind of discussions, obviously the interests and needs of particular countries will vary from one to the other.


We recognize and we certainly would encourage countries to make the same decision that the UAE has made. At the same time, not every country is going to make that decision. If a country decides to pursue nuclear energy, and a country decides that it chooses to enrich on its own soil, then we would prospectively work with that country; number one, to make sure that their pursuit of nuclear energy meets all international safeguards; they work cooperatively with the IAEA. And we believe that that also would provide the kinds of security assurances that we think are important to make sure that any country that pursues nuclear power does not become a potential source of proliferation.

There’s not going to be any – we would like to see the day where there is an international regime and that fewer countries enrich. That is our broad policy goal, but we recognize that a particular approach is going to be different country-by-country or region-by-region.


  1. FSB (History)

    I don’t get it, why would Michael Jordan care if Vietnam has nuclear power?

    OK, seriously, China cannot be peeved if the US is doing something explicitly encouraged by the NPT. If they are, someone should say “Pakistan!” to them. (To which they may well reply “India!”.)

    • joshua (History)

      Maybe the nuclear-powered, basketball-playing robots they plan to build? Good question.

      There is no indication that the Chinese government is in any way disquieted. On the whole, they seem rather well-disposed to nuclear commerce. (There’s a long story here, and others could tell it better than I.) This is just a case of poor reporting.

  2. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Hi Joshua,

    The Chinese are apoplectic over the deal. I got a mouthful about the deal at a recent dinner with the some of the leading lights of the Chinese nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament community. They asserted, as we often do about Iran, that Vietnam has no demonstrable need for a nuclear energy program now, and that the deal “completely undermines the Obama administration’s nonproliferation policy”.

    • joshua (History)

      Thanks, Greg. First reliable account, I’d say. Did anyone indicate the nature of the concern — dealing with Vietnam at all, putting certain things in the agreement or not?

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