Vietnam: Uncle Sam’s newest ally?

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Once enemies, the U.S. and Vietnam have become friends over the course of four decades.  While it did not happen overnight, what transpired was a slow process of rapprochement between the two countries.  It took two generations of Vietnamese and Americans to set aside the bitterness they both have on each other.  Why not?

More than 58,000 American and 282,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed from 1955 to 1975.  North Vietnam and the Viet Cong suffered 444,000 military casualties and 627,000 civilian deaths.

After the fall of Saigon, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and former soldiers fled the country.  Known as “boat people,” the refugees used boats of all sizes to escape the North Vietnamese communists.  They migrated to other countries, in particular the nearby Philippines where the government resettled them.  However, the U.S. was their country of choice; thus, the process of looking for sponsors began.  American families opened their homes and welcomed them.  Eventually, most of them were able to find jobs and own their homes. Over time, the Vietnamese immigrants were allowed to petition for family members provided that they have jobs and financial capability to put them up.  By 2014, 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants resided in the U.S.

Beyond the strong affinity displayed by the Vietnamese people toward their former enemies, government-to-government relations between the U.S. and Vietnam improved considerably.  Cultural and economic ties progressed at a pace that surpassed the most optimistic expectations.

Obama and Vietnam

On July 25, 2013, the historic meeting between President Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang in Washington, DC broke new ground in U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations.  Obama and Truong decided to form a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which underlined the principles of “respect for the U.N. Charter, international law, and each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”  The two leaders pledged that their countries would continue to cooperate on defense and security matters.

On May 23, 2016, Obama visited Hanoi and announced that the U.S. would fully lift a longstanding embargo on lethal arms sale to Vietnam, a decision that may have been precipitated by China’s military build-up in the South China Sea (SCS).  Obama said that the lifting of the arms embargo “will ensure Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.”

Recently, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited President Donald J. Trump in the White House.  His visit is significant because there have been perceptions that Vietnam was leaning to China, and the U.S. is veering away from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.  This caused many countries in the region – including Vietnam and the Philippines – to move closer to China. The leaders of the other eight ASEAN countries are adjusting their alignment as well.  They’re preparing themselves in the event that Trump would leave the region altogether.

Trump and Vietnam

But the U.S. visit of Nguyen has changed all that.  Nguyen was the first ASEAN leader to visit Washington, DC since Trump was inaugurated as president.  With the meeting of Trump and Nguyen in the White House on May 31, it was evident that Trump is not reversing the course of U.S. policy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.  The “Pivot to Asia” that Obama started may have changed in name, but the objectives are the same: to protect U.S. interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting between the two leaders produced a joint statement to “Enhance the Comprehensive Partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam.”  Their joint statement reiterates that the “United States is a ‘Pacific power with widespread interests and commitments throughout the Asia Pacific.’ It maintains all elements of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership that was established during the Obama administration. It goes a step further, stating that President Trump and Prime Minister [Nguyen] Phuc are committed to making the partnership ‘deeper, more substantive, and more effective.’ For the first time the two former enemies stress at the summit level their ‘pledge to strengthen cooperation in the fields of security and intelligence.’”

Which makes one wonder: Is this just another diplomatic hyperbole or does it seem like it would lead to stronger defense and economic ties between the two countries? While a defense treaty would not be politically feasible at this time as it would certainly irk China and would also affect Vietnamese-Russian security relations, an arrangement similar to the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) just might do the work.   But while LEMOA might fall short of a “basing agreement,” it gives the militaries of both countries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repair.  It’s a good start that could lead to a de facto – if not official – defense arrangement.

With this new U.S.-Vietnam Enhanced Comprehensive Partnership, the two countries would be able to deter China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS; thus, protect Vietnam’s EEZ from Chinese encroachment.  Indeed, what is at stake is Vietnam’s economic interest in the SCS.

Defense cooperation and the SCS issue were prominently addressed in the joint statement.  Trump and Nguyen affirmed that the SCS is a “waterway of strategic significance.”  They also discussed the possibility of a visit to a Vietnamese port – Cam Ranh Bay — by a U.S. aircraft carrier and steps to further cooperation between their two naval forces.

Vietnam will never forget the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 when China occupied the islands, which are claimed by Vietnam.  Vietnam attempted to expel the Chinese Navy from the vicinity.  A battle ensued and the Chinese forces prevailed. China established de facto control over the Paracels.  However, Vietnam maintained her claim over the Paracels to this day.

A “first” in U.S.-Vietnam relations

In 2014, China deployed her biggest oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  Vietnam then sent to the U.S. her number two man on the ruling Politburo, Executive Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Dinh The Huynh.  That was a “first” in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Indeed, for the most part of the last two decades, the Philippines and Singapore led the rest of ASEAN in engaging the U.S.  With the rift that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has with the U.S., the Philippines has cocooned herself into isolation.   With the vacuum created by the Philippines, Vietnam would be more than willing to play a key role in engagement with the U.S.

As a sign of closer U.S.-Vietnam military ties, the U.S. transferred six patrol boats to the Vietnam Coast Guard last May.  The U.S. embassy released a statement, which said, “The handover represented deepening cooperation to maritime law enforcement and humanitarian assistance in Vietnam’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.”

At the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his address to some 500 delegates: “The US can’t accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefited all countries represented here today including, and especially, China.”  He added that while conflict with China is not “inevitable,” the two countries will engage in competition.  And that’s where Uncle Sam needs reliable allies to compete with China, which begs the question: Is Vietnam emerging as Uncle Sam’s newest ally in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region?

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