An unofficial source said that, at the end of this July, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Vietnam and two other Southeast Asian countries, Singapore and the Philippines.
This visit of Mr. Lloyd Austin is considered to “clear the way” for a senior figure in the White House to visit Vietnam this year. Public opinion is expecting Vietnam – US relations to step to a new height.
China is currently a comprehensive strategic cooperation partner of Vietnam – the highest position that Hanoi holds for diplomatic partners. Meanwhile, the US is only a comprehensive partner. Many Vietnamese scholars have pointed out that the elevation of the United States to a strategic partner will signal to Beijing a major geopolitical shift in Hanoi’s policy toward China.
“Under the Dragon’s Shadow”
Vietnam is living with an unpleasant neighbor. A joke offered in a book titled “Under the Dragon’s Shadow” by Sebastian Strangio notes that Vietnam’s S-shaped strip of land resembles an old woman straining to support the weight of China. Vietnam is also a front-line country in disputes in the East Sea (South China Sea). Robert Kaplan observes that if China can “cut off” Vietnam there, Beijing can “win the South China Sea.”
Strangio notes that during the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese support for Vietnam – in the form of weapons, ammunition, ping pong balls and soy sauce – led revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh to declare that the relationship between Vietnam and China is like “one hundred favors, one thousand loyalties and ten thousand loves.” But before that, when Chinese forces landed in North Vietnam in 1945 to enforce the armistice after World War II, Ho Chi Minh had a completely different view.
The same applies to the Vietnam-US relationship. While closer ties with the US are understandable for Vietnam, Hanoi has also sought to adjust its level of intimacy with the US. This is fueled by historical animosity and the need to diversify Hanoi’s relationships. A Vietnamese diplomat said that “Vietnam is a prime example of a Southeast Asian country that can play an intermediary role. Sino-American competition is a serious problem, but we have to learn to adapt to it.”
The process of developing defense relations between Vietnam and the US
Since Vietnam and the US normalized diplomatic relations, relations between the two countries have moved in an upward direction on the basis of common interests. Being one of only two Southeast Asian countries specifically mentioned in the Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategy Guidelines shows that Vietnam is increasingly becoming an important part of US defense planning for the United States with the area. The upcoming trip of the US Defense Secretary shows that the two sides are focusing on defense relations rather than normal diplomatic relations.
The Vietnam-US defense relationship begins with military cooperation. Vietnam-US military cooperation began in the late 1980s. At that time, the main field of cooperation was to find the remains of American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. In 1995, the US and Vietnam officially restored diplomatic relations, removing barriers to the development of military relations between the two countries. In March 2000, the US Secretary of Defense visited Vietnam. In November of the same year, Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War. These two “ice-breaking” visits officially opened the military cooperation relationship between the two countries. Since then, the field of cooperation between Vietnam and the US has been increasingly expanded while the military exchanges between the two countries are increasing day by day.
The Vietnam-US defense relationship is growing as Vietnam is increasingly aware of China’s threat in the South China Sea. In 2002, Vietnam participated in the US-led joint exercise for the first time as an observer. In November 2003, the US corvette made a historic visit to Ho Chi Minh City. In 2006, the US lifted the ban on selling military equipment to Vietnam and agreed to receive Vietnamese pilots to the US for training. In 2007, the US allowed the sale of non-lethal weapons to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis. In 2008, the annual strategic political, defense and security dialogue chaired by the US Department of State and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened, marking the institutionalization of the defense cooperation relationship between the two countries.
In 2010, the United States published a Defense Assessment Report every four years, defining the Vietnam-US relationship as a comprehensive partnership. The same year, the US 7th Fleet visited Vietnam, inaugurating the normalization of joint non-combat exercises. In 2011, Vietnam first sent officers to the Military Academy and other US military agencies to study. In 2012, along with the Obama administration’s implementation of the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, US-Vietnam defense cooperation was added with new content. In 2014, the US announced the partial lifting of the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam and the first time exporting conventional weapons to Vietnam. In 2016, the US completely lifted the arms embargo against Vietnam.
After Trump became US president, defense cooperation between Vietnam and the US has gone even further. In 2017, during the visit to the US by Vietnam’s Defense Minister, the two sides agreed to deepen defense cooperation, expand naval exchanges, and increase intelligence sharing. In 2018, the US aircraft carrier formation led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson visited Da Nang, Carl Vinson is also the first US aircraft carrier to visit a Vietnamese port since the Vietnam War. In 2019, the US handed over the used 3,000-ton Hamilton-class patrol boat and 6 patrol boats to the Vietnam Coast Guard. In 2020, the US aircraft carrier once again visited Vietnam.
In 2021, when Biden came to power, the US vowed to help Vietnam set up a pilot training system according to US military standards. According to the content of the proposed letter from the US side, the purpose of this move is to support the Vietnam Air Force in establishing a modern American-style pilot training project, using US-made training aircraft as a tool for main training. For a long time, Vietnam has mainly used Russian-made fighter aircraft. Therefore, the construction of an American-style air force training system marks a breakthrough in defense cooperation between Vietnam and the US.
Barriers in defense relations between Vietnam and the US
What is certain is that while there are signs of significant progress in the US-Vietnam defense relationship, major hurdles remain. Most notably, many Party and military officers (especially those who are retired but still influential in the system) continue to express skepticism about American intentions that date back to the Vietnam War. Vietnam is also concerned about the ability of the US – or more broadly, the West – to incite social unrest in Vietnam to create conditions for a “peaceful evolution” towards democracy. Therefore, the Vietnamese military always keeps its doctrine, training, capabilities and many other details a secret, which restricts Vietnam from accepting US proposals. Moreover, Vietnam is often interested in adjusting relationships appropriately in major power relations – most recently between the US and China. Indeed, one of the possible reasons why Vietnam canceled (or perhaps postponed) 15 defense exchanges with the US in 2019 was to avoid unnecessarily angering China. And the “three nos” defense policy has restricted Vietnam from participating in security cooperation with outside powers.
However, the pace of development of relations between Hanoi and Washington is still very strong.
Prospects of Vietnam – US relations
In general, Vietnam has a positive view on strengthening defense cooperation with the US. Vietnam also supports the policy goals set forth by the US in the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy if national interests are seriously challenged. For example, in response to the US freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) schedule, in September 2017, Vietnam affirmed: “Vietnam respects the right of all countries to conduct freedom of navigation operations with international law.” In February 2019, Vietnam declared it “respects freedom of navigation when US warships pass through the Spratly Islands.” In January 2019, Vietnam did not object to the US and British naval exercises in the South China Sea or the US FONOPs in the Paracel Islands. In 2016, in an unusually frank move, Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh affirmed that Vietnam would support the US and other partners to intervene in the region as long as it brings peace and stability. and prosperity. During a meeting with his US counterpart Mattis in January 2018, Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich said the two sides would prioritize resolving war legacies, building maritime law enforcement, and military medical cooperation, English training for Vietnamese officers and learn the needs and capabilities of each party in defense industry cooperation.
Although China is Vietnam’s most important economic partner, the US will come in second place because it has the ability to help Vietnam avoid over-dependence on China and maintain a cautious balance between the two countries. major countries in foreign policy.
Therefore, Hanoi’s decision to upgrade its defense cooperation relationship with Washington will be a strong message to Beijing, possibly encouraging it to adjust its behavior in the future.