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Vietnam’s Defensive Diplomacy

By Caryle A. Thayer, Professor of Politics, Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra

Asia’s military landscape is shifting, and nowhere more so than in maritime Southeast Asia. This week saw another major development: the inaugural U.S.-Vietnam defense policy dialogue in Hanoi.

Tuesday’s meeting builds on triennial exchanges of defense ministers begun in 2000 and marks a definite turning point in bilateral relations. Since 2008, the two countries have conducted an annual Political, Security and Defense Dialogue under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now they have developed a high-level channel for direct military-to-military discussions under their respective defense department.

But the event raises many questions: What is the real significance of this meeting, conducted at the vice ministerial level? Does this new dialogue signal a shift in Vietnam’s policy from maintaining equidistance between the great powers to one of alignment with the U.S.? Does it also signal a shift in Washington’s policy toward China from one of engagement to containment? How might U.S.-Vietnamese defense relations develop in the future?

There are no simple answers. Clearly recent Chinese military assertiveness in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea provides a stimulus for stepped up U.S.-Vietnam military cooperation. Both countries share an interest in preventing China or any other country from dominating seaborne trade routes and enforcing territorial claims through coercion. Vietnam sees the U.S. presence as a hedge against China’s rising military power.

Vietnam started last year to engage in a very delicate game of signaling that it views an American military presence in the region as legitimate. Last year, for example, Vietnamese military officials flew to the USS John C. Stennis to observe flight operations in the South China Sea. Later that year, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh stopped off at Pacific Command in Hawaii on his way to Washington and was photographed peering through the periscope of a U.S. nuclear submarine.

The cooperation intensified this year when Vietnamese shipyards repaired two U.S. Military Sealift Command ships. On the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the Vietnamese deputy ambassador in Washington paid a well-publicized visit to the USS George H.W. Bush berthed in Norfolk. Shortly after, local government and military officials from Da Nang flew out to the USS George Washington to observe operations in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.

At the same time Vietnam and the U.S. conducted their first joint naval engagement activities. Importantly, the exercise did not involve Vietnamese naval ships operating at sea with their American counterparts. Instead it was conducted on board the USS John S. McCain while it was berthed at Da Nang. This visit was part of a program of annual port visits begun in 2003. The engagement activities involved only noncombat training such as damage control, a search and rescue drill and exchange of cooking skills.

These exchanges may sound trivial, but they are essential to building trust. The confidence-building phase in military relations is now over. The U.S. and Vietnam are engaged in working out a program of practical activities that will enhance the professionalism of the Vietnamese military. In broad terms, both countries will cooperate in building capabilities in specialized areas such as peacekeeping, environmental security, multilateral search and rescue coordination and regional disaster response.

What comes next? The sale of arms, equipment and military technology is not on the cards at the moment. But it is very likely Vietnam will lift its self-imposed restrictions and permit its military officers to undertake professional military education and training courses at staff colleges and other military institutions in the U.S. Vietnam’s willingness to engage with the U.S. is primarily motivated by its desire to improve military capacity and professionalism so it can play a greater role in contributing to regional security. On the U.S. side, American military personnel will develop personal relationships with their counterparts that will enhance mutual understanding and facilitate future cooperation.

Closer Vietnam-U.S. military ties also fit into Hanoi’s broader strategy of defense diplomacy with other countries. Vietnam has long-standing defense ties with Russia and India. It has a well-developed program with Australia since 1999, in which Australia has trained more than 150 Vietnamese officers. Vietnam is also in the process of stepping up military-to-military relations with its former colonial master, France.

Of equal significance is the development of Chinese-Vietnamese military ties. The two countries have conducted at least nine joint naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin since 2006. This year they conducted their first joint search and rescue exercise at sea. Vietnam has hosted three ports visits by the Chinese navy and this year the Vietnamese navy made its first port call to China.

U.S. re-engagement with Vietnam and other countries in Asia, such as Indonesia, should not be mistaken as a strategy meant solely to contain China. The Obama administration wants to demonstrate that the U.S. is a responsible resident in the Asia-Pacific region and willing to cooperate with regional states, including China, to maintain security. U.S. officials have repeatedly called on China to resume military-to-military ties. The Obama administration has also re-engaged with the region’s multilateral security architecture. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he will attend the inaugural meeting of the Association of Southeast Nations’ defense ministers and their eight dialogue partners in Hanoi in October.

Tuesday’s meeting is a clear demonstration of how the U.S.-Vietnam military relationship is deepening. China must decide if it is ready to work with both countries to develop practical measures to build up regional capacity to address emerging security challenges. If it doesn’t, then China risks being left in the wake of newly evolving patterns of maritime security cooperation.


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