Written by Carlyle A. Thayer.
Military-to-military relations between Vietnam and the U.S. developed slowly after the normalization of diplomatic relations in July 1995 mainly due to Vietnamese sensitivities and concern that defense relations might outstrip economic ties. In 2000, William Cohen became the first U.S. Secretary of Defense to visit Hanoi.
The year 2003 proved pivotal. In July, the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) Central Committee’s eighth plenum redefined its ideological approach to interstate relations by adopting the concepts doi tac (object of cooperation) and doi tuong (object of struggle). In other words, Vietnam had come to view its relations with both China and the United States as containing elements of cooperation and struggle when either state adopted policies that affected Vietnam’s nation interests. This new policy sanctioned new avenues of cooperation with the United States. In 2003, U.S. Navy warships began annual port visits to Vietnam.
In December 2003 General Pham Van Tra, Vietnam’s Minister of National Defence, made a visit to Washington to reciprocate the visit of Secretary Cohen three years earlier. Significantly, during General Tra’s visit it as agreed that exchanges between defence ministers would take place every three years on an alternating basis. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Hanoi in June 2006, Vietnamese Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh visited Washington in December 2009, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Hanoi in June 2012.
In 2007, the George W. Bush Administration amended the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to permit the issuing of “licenses, other approvals, exports or imports of non-lethal defense articles and defense services” to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis. U.S., however, continues to prohibit the export of “lethal defense articles and services destined for Vietnam” as well as components of lethal weapons, non-lethal crowd control equipment and night vision devises.
In June 2008, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made an official visit to the United States where he met with President George W. Bush. A joint statement issued after their meeting noted that they had reached agreement to hold an annual high-level dialogue on security and strategic issues at deputy minister/assistant secretary level. The first Political, Security and Defense Dialogue was held in Washington in October.
U.S.-Vietnam defence relations stepped up noticeably in 2009 when both sides engaged in several high profile but largely symbolic interactions and, more significantly, stepped up defense consultations. In April, Vietnamese military officials were flown out to the USS John D. Stennis, an aircraft carrier operating in the South China Sea, to observe air operations. In September the USNS Safeguard underwent minor repairs in the port of Saigon.
In late 2009, Prime Minister Dung announced that Vietnam would open its commercial repair facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to all navies of the world. The U.S. was the first to take up the offer. In 2011 and 2012 a total of four U.S. Navy Sealift ships underwent minor repairs at Cam Ranh Bay.
In December, General Thanh visited the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii en route to Washington. He was photographed peering through the periscope of the USS Florida, a nuclear-powered guided missile submarine (SSGN). When General Thanh met with Secretary Rumsfeld, he requested that the United States relax its ban on military equipment and weapon sales to Vietnam.
In 2010 Vietnam and the U.S. celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of diplomatic relations. The occasion was marked by highly symbolic visits by Vietnamese officials to the newest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS George W. H. Bush in Norfolk, Virginia and, half a world away, to the USS George Washington in waters off Vietnam’s central coast. Vietnam and the United States also opened a new chapter in defence relations by conducting the first of an annual series of non-combat naval engagement activities in the port of Da Nang. Vietnam and the United States have yet to conduct formal naval exercises.
Bilateral defence relations were significantly upgraded in 2010 with the convocation of the 1st Defense Policy Dialogue at deputy defence minister level in August. The following year at the 2nd Defense Policy Dialogue held in September Vietnam and the U.S. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation. The MOU set out five priority areas for cooperation: regular high-level policy dialogues, maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping. Also in 2011, Vietnam sent students to the U.S. National War College and the U.S. Naval Staff College for the first time. In October, the commandant of Vietnam’s National Defense Academy addressed staff and students at the U.S. National Defense University.
In June 2012, Secretary Panetta paid an unexpected visit to Cam Ranh Bay en route to his meeting with Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi. Panetta met with sailors on USNS Richard E. Byrd, a U.S. Military Sealift Command vessel undergoing repairs in the commercial port. In Hanoi Panetta proposed establishing an Office of Defense Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy to expedite defence cooperation. General Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s long-standing request that the U.S. life ITAR regulations on the sale of weapons and equipment.
During 2012 defence cooperation activities picked up pace. Vietnam sent its first observer to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in June-August. A delegation from Vietnam’s Steering Board 501, which has responsibility for dealing with wartime unexploded ordnance, visited in July. And in October, Vietnamese officials were flown out to the USS George Washington to observe operations in the South China Sea.
Vietnam hosted visits by the Commander of the US 7th Fleet in January; the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in July; and a delegation from the U.S. National Defense University in October.
In the first half of 2013, Vietnam hosted the third Defense Policy Dialogue in January and the fourth naval exchange activity in Da Nang in April. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff welcomed the first visit to America by the Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army Deputy Minister of National Defense General Do Ba Ty in June). General Ty’s delegation included the Commander of Vietnam’s Air Force and the deputy commanders of the Navy and General Intelligence Department. General Ty’s delegation also visited the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
The high point in U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations was marked on July 25, 2013 during the official visit of President Truong Tan San to The White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama. The two presidents issued a joint statement announcing the U.S.-Vietnam Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership.
Point seven addressed defence and security cooperation. Both leaders expressed satisfaction with the 2011 MOU and reaffirmed their support for the on-going annual Political, Security and Defense Dialogue and the Defense Policy Dialogue. The two presidents also agreed to expand cooperation to enhance search and rescue and disaster response capabilities as well as enhanced cooperation in non-traditional security matters. They also agreed to work more closely to counter terrorism; enhance maritime law enforcement cooperation; combat transnational crime including piracy, and narcotics, human, and wildlife trafficking; and address high-tech crime and cyber security. President Obama expressed the U.S. desire to assist Vietnam prepare for United Nations peacekeeping operations.
In October, the United States hosted the sixth U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue and the fourth Defense Policy Dialogue. The latter meeting was followed by the signing of a bilateral cooperation agreement on equipment, training and capacity building between the U.S. and Vietnamese Coast Guards. In December, Vietnam received Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command to discuss expended cooperation.
An overview of U.S.-Vietnam defence cooperation since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995 reveals that it has proceeded gradually due to Vietnamese sensitivities. Vietnam seeks a mutually beneficial defence relationship with the United States and is extremely cautious about the impact on relations with China. Vietnam adhere to a policy of “three no’s” – no alliances, no military bases and no use of relations with one country directed at a third party.
As a result of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, the pace of U.S.-Vietnam defence cooperation has quickened. But is has also been limited to mainly symbolic or highly restricted activities. The symbolic activities include regular flouts by Vietnamese officials to U.S. aircraft carriers transiting the South China Sea. The 2011 MOU, which included five area of cooperation, was largely a catalogue of already on-going activities. It was mainly a transparency measure for China’s benefit. So far Vietnam has refrained from conducting military activities with the U.S. Vietnam prefers to restrict defence cooperation to non-traditional security issues, such as those enumerated in the 2013 comprehensive partnership agreement. Vietnam is willing to work with the U.S. Coast Guard to enhance maritime law enforcement.
As the United States has pressed for a step up in defence cooperation, Vietnam has tabled its own demands for the U.S. to address the legacy of the Vietnam War by contributing more to clearing up unexploded ordnance and the poisonous aftereffects of Agent Orange. Vietnam views ITAR restrictions on the sale of military weapons and equipment as discriminatory and has repeatedly asked the United States to remove them.
In sum, Vietnam and the United States have convergent but not congruent security interests. Vietnam officially welcomes a U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia, and the South China Sea, as long as it contributes to regional peace and security as viewed from Hanoi. Vietnam seeks to reinforce its own security through a multilateral strategy of maintaining good relations with all the major power, especially China, Japan, India, Russia and the United States. Vietnam will continue to cooperate with the U.S. but it will not align with it.
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales and Director of Thayer Consultancy.