2013-02-10 by Richard Weitz
This 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War provides an opportunity to assess the progress the Obama administration has achieved during its first term in seeking to deepen U.S. security ties with Vietnam.
Of the “six key lines of action” that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton associated with the Asian Pivot in a November 2011 Foreign Policy article, Vietnam could contribute to several of them: “forging a broad-based military presence”; “engaging with regional multilateral institutions” and “expanding trade and investment.”
Yet, Vietnam presents problems for the “deepening our working relationships with emerging powers” (i.e., China) and “advancing democracy and human rights” action lines.
One reason U.S. officials have cultivated relations with Vietnam has been to pursue the Pentagon’s goal of making the U.S. force posture in Asia more “geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.” Partly due to foreign military basing constraints in Japan and South Korea, the administration aims to expand defense cooperation with other Asian partners.
The geographic focus of this effort has been in Southeast Asia, which complements the large-fixed U.S. bases in northeast Asia and also provides for superior access to the vital shipping lanes that pass through Southeast Asia.
U.S. military and civilian officials have disclaimed any interest in acquiring new permanent bases in the Asia Pacific region. Instead, the functional focus of the broader U.S. military presence has been on building the capabilities of local militaries.
In 2009 the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced its willingness to permit the export of “non-lethal” military equipment, such as naval surveillance radars, to Vietnam. That same month, the U.S. and Vietnamese held their first formal defense talks and their navies conducted their first joint exercises since the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago. The destroyer USS John McCain joined with ships of the Vietnamese People’s Navy to conduct training drills for search and rescue, damage control, maintenance, emergency repair, and fire-control.
At the same time, the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier, nominally there to help mark the 15th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam ties, also hosted a combined Vietnamese civilian-military delegation while sailing in the disputed South China Sea off the Vietnamese port of Da Nang.
In October 2010, Vietnam invited foreign navies to use of the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, deep-water port off the South China Sea that was constructed by the United States and then also used by the Soviet Union, for “peaceful purposes.”
Cam Ranh Bay’s deep water harbor and port infrastructure would be important for replenishing USN warships operating in the disputed South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Last summer, Panetta became the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit Cam Rahn Bay since the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He attended a ceremony at the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a cargo ship operated by a mainly civilian crew under the Navy’s Military Sealift Command; then undergoing repairs by Vietnamese workers.
Speaking on the deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd, Panetta said that, “We are rebalancing our forces to the Asia-Pacific … For that reason, it will be particularly important to be able to … work with partners like Vietnam to be able to use harbors like this as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast towards our stations here in the Pacific.” At the site, Panetta called for a growth in high-level exchanges as well as enhanced cooperation in search and rescue, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, in peacekeeping operations, and in promoting freedom of maritime navigation.
Furthermore, Panetta and Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Phuong Quang Thanh agreed to develop cooperation in five areas covered in the 2011 memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation: high-level dialogues, maritime security, search and rescue operations, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The Vietnamese have indicated that they might allow the U.S. Navy to send warships to Cam Ranh Bay, but only if the United States relaxes a ban on selling weapons and other lethal military equipment to Vietnam.
But members of Congress and various groups within the United States have lobbied hard to prevent such sakes until the government improves its human rights policies. An issue of recent concern has been the government’s crackdown on media and religious freedoms.
The United States and Vietnam have also been developing closer economic ties. Along with China and Japan, the United States is one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners, export markets, and source of foreign direct investment. Between 2002 and 2010, bilateral U.S.-Vietnamese trade grew more than six-fold, to $18.6 billion. Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007 provided a powerful fillip in this regard.
Since then, however, the growth in bilateral trade and U.S. direct investment in Vietnam has slowed—partly due to the global economic slowdown, and partly to the hesitation of Vietnam to make further and deeper economic reforms as well as legal and regulatory changes to ensure the rule of law in Vietnam rather than, as now, rule by law.
Despite using some of their wealth to purchase arms, especially from Russia, Vietnam cannot hope to balance China militarily.
The PRC significantly out matches the combined weight of all the ASEAN members in manpower, equipment and spending.
Unlike South Korea, Japan, or Australia, the Southeast Asian states lack bilateral defense treaties with the United States.
Nonetheless, the Vietnamese have joined other ASEAN states and encouraged their former adversary, the Americans, to balance the overwhelmingly powerful Chinese colossus nearby.
Yet, Vietnamese officials have expanded security ties with the United States deliberately but also cautiously. In public, they deny that they are seeking to an alliance with the United States against the PRC .They correctly point out that Vietnam engages in defense cooperation with many countries, including China. Thus far, they have only allowed the U.S. Navy to send supply and other unarmed vessels to Cam Ranh Bay, while restricting the visits of U.S. warships to other Vietnamese ports such as Danang.
While the Vietnamese and other Asians want the United States to balance China, they do not want to Beijing to become irritated for their doing so.
Thus, they maneuver to make it seem as if it is the United States to be seen as driving the balancing, with their appearing to go along reluctantly.
As a result, Chinese officials accuse the United States of seeking to contain China, which is not the Obama administration’s intent.
The People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, warned that, “The U.S. keeps saying it wants to enhance relations with Vietnam, but almost every year the Americans use the big sticks of democracy, human rights and trade protection to find fault with Vietnam,” issues which do not trouble the China-Vietnam relationship.
Other Asian countries present other challenges to the Asian Pivot.
However much they welcome the elevated U.S. role in the region, none of these countries want a military confrontation with China.
Many have weak economies or domestic human rights problems.
And Asia’s multinational structures remain weak and unable to cope with rising Chinese power without an external balancer.
For our report on the re-think of US strategy toward the Pacific see the following: