Originally Published 2013-08-08 12:06:49 Published on Aug 08, 2013
Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's recent visit to Washington crystallised cooperation on non-traditional security matters such as counter-terrorism, and enhancing maritime security, which will not raise red flags in Beijing. Significantly, the meeting avoided the more militaristic features of national security.
US-Vietnam security cooperation: One step at a time
"President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington on 24 July was the first visit by the Vietnamese head of state to the US, and only the second such visit since the former adversaries restored normal diplomatic relations in 1995. In the last 18 years, cooperation between the two countries has steadily matured and last month’s visit saw the conclusion of a comprehensive partnership between the two countries. Notably, while the agreement called for a strengthening of bilateral defence and security relations, the issues discussed were a mere reiteration of the ongoing bilateral efforts displaying caution on the part of both the countries. This article examines the current and future scope of security cooperation between the US and Vietnam in the backdrop of evolving security dynamics in the region. While underlining the common security interests of both the countries in the region it also highlights factors restricting deeper security ties between the two countries. Recent Developments Addressing the joint press conference after his meeting with President Sang on 25 July, President Barack Obama stated " step by step improvement" in relations "has allowed us now to announce a comprehensive partnership between our two countries that will allow even greater cooperation on a whole range of issues from trade and commerce to military-to-military cooperation." He was alluding to the gradualist nature of normalisation of US-Vietnam security ties after the two countries restored diplomatic relations. The common resolve of both the countries to strengthen bilateral defence and security cooperation was elucidated by the joint statement, issued following the meeting at the Oval Office.i In particular, an unstable South China Sea was recognised as a major concern for both the countries and an emphasis was laid for a "peaceful" resolution of the ongoing disputes in the region. While, there was no direct mention of China, calls for "...the settlement of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)", made their shared concern towards an increasingly assertive China in the region apparent. Earlier in June, a similar call for reaching an internationally recognised legal solution to territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region was made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey as he welcomed Vietnam’s Chief of General Staff, Senior Lieutenant General Do Ba Ty, to Washington. Accompanied by the Chief of Air Force, Deputy Chief of the Navy and Deputy Chief of Intelligence, and other high-ranking military officers, this was the first visit of a Vietnamese Chief of General Staff to the Pentagon. Another crucial feature of this trip was a brief visit by the Vietnamese High Level Military Delegation to the headquarters of US Army 1 Corps, assigned for military operations in the Asia Pacific, as part of the US Pacific Command. Notably, it was the then US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay and Hanoi last June that paved the way for the landmark visits. The first visit to the former American base by a US Secretary of Defence since the end of the Vietnam War, it underlined the importance of US-Vietnam security cooperation in the region. During the visit Panetta was quoted as saying, "...it will be particularly important to be able to work with partners like Vietnam, to be able to use harbours like this as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, ports or stations here in the Pacific." Factors influencing security cooperation Although the United States is not directly involved in the ongoing territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific, it is, as asserted by Vice President Joe Biden, a "Pacific resident power". Understandably, stability in the region constitutes a primary security concern of the US. Explaining this, Kurt M Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during an address in the Senate had said last year "...the recent spate of disputes in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan are sending reverberations throughout the region, threatening instabilities that could undermine U.S. interests." With the aversion and resolution of regional conflicts as its principal objective in the Asia-Pacific, United States has refused to take sides on specific territorial disputes. Vice President Biden has described US’ policy towards the Asia-Pacific as strengthening alliances; deepening security partnerships and investing like never before in regional institutions to help manage disputes peacefully. In the face of an aggressive and confrontational China which makes the most expansive claims of any of the South China Sea claimants, marking its maps with a broad U-shaped line using the "nine-dash" claim that includes most of the sea, US’ search for regional allies to balance the rising bully needs little explanation. Vietnam, in particular has proven to be a crucial partner in US’s ’pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacificii. According to Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asian expert at the University of New South Wales, Vietnam has repeatedly sought a greater US involvement in the South China Sea dispute through regional multilateral forums.iii Explaining Vietnam rationale behind the internationalisation of the issue, and in particular its alignment with the United States, Dr Nguyen Dinh Thang, Executive Director of the Virginia-based civil rights organization Boat People SOS, wrote "One thing that is truly helping right now is the unrelenting aggression from the north, that is, from China... Vietnam cannot resist that aggression on its own... It has to make a decision - either to join with the US and other ASEAN countries to put together a common front to push back the aggression or stay with China." iv Vietnam’s decision in this regard was made clear by the resolution of the 11th party congress that described a proactive engagement with the world as one of its main priorities for intensifying its national defence capacity. Although hardliners within the Vietnamese Communist Party leadership have been known for their ideological affinity towards China, the increasing number of anti-China protests in Vietnam reflects Beijing’s growing unpopularity. Notably, recent months have seen a crushing of such protests by the Vietnamese government. However, Reuters reported this was largely driven by the fact that the protests were becoming a source of domestic opposition to the state and not because of their anti-China nature. Limitations to deepening security cooperation Despite the strengthening security ties between Vietnam and the US, it is important to note that the recent visit of President Sang to Washington concluded in a comprehensive dialogue instead of a much speculated bilateral strategic dialogue. Explaining the difference between a strategic partnership and a comprehensive partnership, Carlyle Thayer stated that countries forge strategic partnership agreements with nations considered important for the attainment of their national interests.v Recent developments fall short of this crucial yardstick and establish the evolving nature of US-Vietnam ties. Crucially, they also highlight key limitations that will define the scope of bilateral security cooperation in near future. First, although Beijing represents a common security concern to both the countries, it is a crucial economic partner for both Hanoi and Washington. China is currently the second largest trading partner of both the United States and Vietnamvi. Understandably therefore, both the countries are wary of taking a step that can antagonise China. Second, the incumbent political regime in Vietnam is ideologically congruous with Beijing. Le Chi Dzung of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and the Vietnamese Communist Party was quoted as saying, "Nationalism builds out from Confucianism". The two countries have also been involved in a seminar between their communist parties to reinvigorate their commitment to socialism and promote friendship. Third, there continues to be strong opposition against greater cooperation with Vietnam in the United States on account of Hanoi’s poor human rights record. Scott Flipse, Deputy Director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently described Vietnam as the country with the worst record in human rights condition in Southeast Asia.vii Fourth, the US and Vietnam share a history of strained political ties.viii Their chequered history does not constitute the centrepiece of their present-day relations. Nevertheless, the Prisoners Of War/ Missing In Action issue still remains one of the US governments highest priorities with Vietnam, given the sensitivity of the matter to domestic opinion. Similarly, Vietnamese conservatives continue to be suspicious that the United States’ long-term goal is to erode Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP’s) monopoly on power.ix China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and its growing assertiveness in pursuing these has led to an increasing convergence of US-Vietnam strategic interests. Vietnam is likely to further deepen its security ties with the United States, but given a host of domestic constraints and their economic interdependence with China, this is likely to occur at a gradual pace. The constant reference by the cross-section of Vietnam’s leaders to ’mutual respect’ and ’sovereignty’ demonstrates that although Vietnam will cooperate with the US it will not align with it against China. In fact, President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington crystallised cooperation on non-traditional security matters such as counter-terrorism, and enhancing maritime security, which will not raise red flags in Beijing. Significantly, the meeting avoided the more militaristic features of national security. In conclusion, while the recent meeting between the two leaders has created a new political and diplomatic dialogue at the ministerial level x, it remains to be seen how both Washington and Hanoi will address their limitations and take the next step of charting out a comprehensive bilateral security arrangement. (The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.) I.     Calling for enhanced cooperation in non-traditional security matters, the statement saw an agreement by the two leaders to cooperate on counter-terrorism efforts, maritime security, efforts to combat transnational crime and to address high-tech crime and cyber security. II.     Mark E. Manyin, "US-Vietnam Relations in 2013: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy," 26 July 2013, Congressional Research Service, Pp. 2, Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40208.pdf III.     In 2010, Vietnam used its chairmanship of ASEAN to actively press the US to be more proactive on maritime security issues affecting the South China Sea. Cited in: Carlyle Thayer, "Vietnam and the US: Convergence but not Congruence", 13 February 2013. Available at: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Special-Feature/Detail/?lng=en&id=159647&contextid774=159647&contextid775=159646&tabid=1453526659 IV.     Natalie Liu, "Vietnamese President Seeks New Relationship With US", Voice of America, 25 July 2013. Available at: http://m.voanews.com/a/1709661.html V.     Carlyle A Thayer, "The U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership: What’s in a Name?", 26 July, 2013 VI.     Wayne M. Morrison, "China-U.S. Trade Issues", Congressional research Service, Summary, Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33536.pdf VII.     ParameswaranPonnudurai, "Vietnamese President Highlights ’Differences’ Over Human Rights", Radio Free Asia, 25 July, 2013. Available at: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/rights-07252013161937.html VIII.     Seventeen years ago US-Vietnam bilateral ties were bogged down by unsettled issues arising from the Vietnam War: full accounting for US Prisoners of War/Missing in Action, Vietnamese refugees, and Vietnam’s demand that the U.S. address the wounds of war and stop its support for anti-communist exiles seeking to overthrow Hanoi government. IX.     Mark E. Manyin (2013), Summary, Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40208.pdf X.     Carlyle A. Thayer, "The U.S. -Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership: What’s in a Name?", Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 26, 2013. "
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