Time for Closer Naval Ties between the United States and Vietnam
January 8, 2015
The year 2014 marked an eventful time in U.S.-Vietnam bilateral defense relations. In addition to high-level visits to Vietnam by senior U.S. military and congressional leaders, the administration of President Barack Obama last October announced a partial lifting of the ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam.
While these developments signaled closer defense ties between the two countries and reflect the common security interests of the two governments, the next phase of the relationship will be more challenging. But getting it right will be important for the U.S. rebalance to Asia and the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in future years. It will also impact regional stability and Vietnam’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy.
Naval ties with Vietnam are still nascent compared to other partnerships the U.S. Navy has around maritime Southeast Asia and have focused primarily on confidence-building through noncombat exercises. U.S. Navy ships began calling on the port of Danang on the Vietnamese central coast in 2004. The two countries in 2010 inaugurated an annual series of naval engagement activities.
Vietnam is prone to sensitivities about its sovereignty and independence, the result of a long history of entanglement with many of the world’s major powers. But two decades after the normalization of ties between the United States and Vietnam, and given mounting security concerns in the South China Sea, stepped-up naval relations between the two countries would be a welcome and constructive step.
The United States has shown interest in more regular port visits to Vietnam and in recent years has sought to boost the complexity of its engagement with Vietnam’s expanding navy. In April 2014, the United States and Vietnam for the first time conducted a search and rescue exercise off the coast of Danang. Yet U.S. Navy ships are currently limited to one port call for up to three ships per year, while U.S. naval warships are prohibited from entering the strategic deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay further south. Addressing these restrictions in an open and pragmatic manner will not be easy, but is critical to the blossoming partnership between the Unites States and Vietnam.
There are concerns within the Vietnamese leadership that allowing more U.S. ship visits could risk upsetting China unnecessarily. But China’s parking of an oil rig on Vietnam’s continental shelf and weeks-long intimidation tactics toward Vietnamese vessels last year indicate that Beijing will not spare its weaker neighbor during the pursuit of larger regional ambitions, despite the fact that Hanoi decided to keep other powers at bay during the stand-off. The recognition that China could push Vietnam around without drawing in the United States partly drove Beijing’s calculus.
In response, a more active U.S. presence in the eastern part of the South China Sea will be in the interest of Vietnam, the United States, and regional stability writ large. Engagement between the U.S. and Vietnamese navies does not come at the expense of China. Just as the relaxation of the U.S. lethal arms ban facilitates Vietnam’s efforts to boost military modernization and maritime domain awareness, more interaction during refueling stops by U.S. naval ships, for example, could help Vietnam improve its maritime safety procedures.
But following some notable developments in 2014, U.S.-Vietnam military-to-military engagement can be expected to plateau this year as Vietnamese leaders focus on preparations for the next Communist Party congress, scheduled for early 2016. Although U.S. and Vietnamese defense officials conduct annual policy dialogues, decisions on key military matters, especially with regard to the United States, have been reserved for the highest political leadership in Hanoi.
Meanwhile, policymakers in Washington are considering the possibility of a visit by President Obama to Vietnam later this year to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The military component will not be in the driver’s seat of the bilateral relationship anytime soon, as reaffirmed by Obama and Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang when they announced the launch of a comprehensive partnership in 2013. Among other things, U.S. and Vietnamese officials are working together ever more closely to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations with 10 other countries in the first half of the year.
But after the administration relaxed the lethal arms ban, and as the emerging bilateral security relationship moves into a new yet more uncertain phase, a gesture by Hanoi that signals it is serious about forging deeper comprehensive ties with the United States—along with concrete improvement on human rights in Vietnam—would be much welcomed in Washington. An element as beneficial to both countries as naval diplomacy should not be overlooked.
Over the next few decades, Washington faces a great opportunity and also some hefty challenges across Southeast Asia: It needs to make the case to Southeast Asian countries that deeper engagement with the United States, on both security and economic cooperation, does not negatively affect the regional balance of power. Instead, this engagement helps improve peace and stability and the rule of law in the region.
U.S. defense relations with Vietnam should be considered in this context. As the United States and Vietnam gradually move toward a new normal in their relationship, finding a new equilibrium for the U.S. and Vietnamese navies seems the next logical step.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the January 8, 2015, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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