Looking beyond symbolism in US-Vietnam defence cooperation
The second visit by US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill to Vietnam came at a time of ambivalent defence relations between the two countries. The visit to Da Nang in March 2020 was part of events commemorating 25 years of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations, but irregular bilateral defence engagement and the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic overshadowed the festivities.
Bilateral defence ties initially flourished following the establishment of the US-Vietnam comprehensive partnership in 2013. This was especially the case after the 2014 standoff between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea when China deployed an oil rig within Vietnam’s economic exclusive zone, and the 2019 Vanguard Bank standoff - the most recent crisis in Vietnam-China maritime relations.
Progress is still being made in most non-combat areas including addressing the war legacy, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and defence and security dialogues. In November 2019, Mark Esper made his first trip to Hanoi - the third by a US Defense Secretary in just two years - reaffirming US commitment to the Indo-Pacific and its partnership with Vietnam.
The two countries endeavoured to address the Agent Orange dioxin issues, complete the decontamination project at Danang Airport and start a 10-year, US$390 million dioxin remediation project at the Bien Hoa Air Base. The United States committed to providing humanitarian aid to Agent Orange victims in those contaminated areas.
Vietnam also made great contributions to repatriating 726 out of 1973 US soldiers who went missing in action during the Vietnam War. In a symbolic move to promote reconciliation, Daniel Kritenbrink was the first incumbent US Ambassador to pay respects at the Truong Son national cemetery - the resting place of more than 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers killed in the war. This visit demonstrated US efforts to address the war legacy and move towards future cooperation.
In maritime security, the US Coast Guard transferred the first Hamilton-class cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard through the Excessive Defense Articles program in May 2017. The United States also announced that it would provide Vietnam with a second high endurance cutter in 2020. Vietnam also participated in the US-ASEAN Maritime Exercise for the first time and was one of three countries granted a waiver from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to buy Russian military equipment.
Defence ties are increasing, but setbacks still exist and military cooperation is lagging behind other areas of US-Vietnam relations.
Since the USS Carl Vinson’s port call in March 2018, there has been no major ship visit to Vietnam. Several defence engagement activities between the United States and Vietnam which were originally scheduled for 2019 have reportedly been cancelled. This does not live up to the US Department of Defense’s objective to build a ‘strategic partnership’ with Vietnam.
No major arms deals have been conducted since the United States lifted the lethal weapons ban on Vietnam in 2016. American-made weapons are too expensive for the Vietnamese army despite Vietnam’s military expenditures totalling US$5.5 billion in 2018, or 2.3 per cent of GDP. The removal of the lethal weapons ban implies a symbolic value of having a ‘normal’ military relationship with the United States. The ‘too complicated, too slow, and too expensive’ defence acquisition process, the interoperability of weapons systems, and the lack of a General Security of Military Information Agreement are other impediments to boosting substantial defence trade.
Still, Vietnam’s geostrategic position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific makes it pivotal to US engagement in the region. Vietnam also wants to promote defence ties with the United States to strengthen its deterrence capabilities against China’s expansion and assertiveness in the South China Sea. But maintaining a healthy defence relationship with China is also one of Vietnam’s priorities.
‘Bilateral defence ties have now become an important pillar in the Vietnam-China comprehensive strategic partnership’ wrote Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam’s Vice Defence Minister. According to the ‘Four Nos’ policy in the 2019 Vietnam Defence White Paper - no military alliances, no foreign military bases or troops on Vietnamese territory, no alignment with one country to fight another and no use of force in international relations - Vietnam will not seek an alliance with the United States to confront China. But with the newly added ‘One Flexibility’ guideline, Vietnam can promote defence ties with any country if its sovereign integrity and independence are threatened.
The level of trust in any bilateral relationship can be measured by the depth and scope of defence and security cooperation. Vietnam is doubtful of US commitment to the region and its penchant for abandoning allies. China’s seizures of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 are often cited. Vietnam is thus hesitant to move too fast in advancing defence ties with the United States.
The US-Vietnam relationship has tended to yield ‘symbolic’ gestures rather than development in ‘real’ areas of military cooperation. The port call alone cannot get things back on track. Without substantial action to materialise symbolic moves, there will be little additional trust in bilateral defence ties moving forward.
*Tu Lai is a research fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.