Originally Published 2015-06-02 00:00:00 Published on Jun 02, 2015
The South China Sea dispute is today at the centre of the emerging geopolitical game in the Asia Pacific region. The growing US-Vietnam friendship will have a strong bearing on the direction of the changing regional security dynamics.
Vietnam: Washington's new friend in the Asia Pacific

The Asia Pacific region is currently undergoing some tense and significant developments. The South China Sea (SCS) dispute is garnering much more global attention than it did five years ago, given the increasing possibility of an armed conflict. Although tension in the region is not a new phenomenon, the region is witnessing some crucial changes in the strategic and security domain.

Amidst the chaos of warnings over land reclamation activities, unilateral actions, diplomatic protests and vessel ramming, the region is also witnessing a new and important friendship between Washington and Hanoi. Vietnam is an important player in the Asia-Pacific region and the US now appears to be more determined to push forward its rebalance priorities. For both the nations, China is a rising concern. Vietnam is struggling to protect its claims against China and realises the need for external support in its territorial dispute in the SCS.

Hanoi and Washington now appear to be moving past the memories of the Vietnam War finding a common ground with shared goals. The ground is the SCS and the goal is balancing an assertive China. The US is looking for nations to partner with to further its "pivot" and Vietnam is not going to shy away from a strong support against Beijing in its dispute in the South China Sea. While it would be incorrect to underpin the reason of this developing relationship entirely on China, the current security environment in the region definitely has played a favourable factor.

Washington's announcement on the pivot in 2012 has received a bit of criticism for not really defining it and most importantly for its strategic absence from the region. Friends and allies began to question the intent of this pivot and if Washington would actually extend its support in the event of an armed conflict in the SCS either between China-Philippines or China-Japan in the East China Sea. Analysts began to talk of a weakening American dominance in the Asia-Pacific seriously affecting Washington's credibility regarding the pivot.

US may have had all the intention to pursue its pivot but problems back home was challenging Washington's ability to be present in the region at a scale that was required. When President Obama cancelled its Asia tour in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang ventured out on a "charm offensive" in South East Asia, stressing on regional cooperation and regional security.

What China was trying to tell the region was that South East Asia does not need the US or other extra regional actors to maintain peace and stability. Washington's inability to reassure its regional friends led to Beijing taking on a leadership role in the region both in the security and economic domain.

In the following two years, China continued to strengthen its relationship with its regional neighbours through impressive economic deals while growing more assertive in its claims in the SCS. Between 2013 and now, Beijing declared a unilateral Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over East China Sea, refused to resolve its disputes in an UN tribunal court, blocked Philippines navy from reaching its own garrison in the SCS, rammed and fired water cannons on Vietnamese vessels, placed an oil rig in Hanoi's EEZ and is building artificial islands with airstrips and lighthouses to consolidate its claims and establish its authority.

Establishing the ADIZ was a grim reminder of the political vacuum created by the United States and no one to check China's unilateral actions. In 2014, Beijing began to make its presence felt in the Indian Ocean and portray that it is now gearing up to project power beyond its shores. Chinese ventures into the Indian Ocean combined with the Maritime Silk Road have forced Washington to rethink its strategy in the Asia-Pacific. It was perhaps with the signing of the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, that Washington began to pick up its pace in the region. The US now appears to be more focused on the Asia-Pacific rebalance and engaging with possible actors in creating a strong regional security architecture.

If the US is looking to create and maintain a strong presence in the Asia Pacific, Vietnam is more than willing to be a part of this network. This new dimension in this relationship was reflected through Vietnam's Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang's visit to Washington in March 2015. While the international media failed to pick up this development, Quang made quite an impact with his visit meeting with officials from Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and other US officials. The discussion went beyond public security and covered security and defense matter. The US and Vietnam are now particularly looking to collaborate on maritime security a win-win for both the nations.

The month of May gave us an insight into Washington's vision for the region with the flying of a US Surveillance plane near China's artificial islands, a strong message to China during the Shangri La Dialogue and Ashton Carter beginning his State visit to Vietnam. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is currently on a Asia-Pacific tour to emphasise on "a regional approach to maritime security, build relationships with key partners and seek out new areas of defense cooperation, all as part of the 'next phase of the rebalance". While in Vietnam he said he will "urge Vietnamese officials to give up their reclamation projects in the South China Sea" and has pledged $18 million to help Hanoi buy maritime patrol vessels. The two sides also signed a "Joint Vision Statement" to guide their future defence relations. The statement draws from the MoU signed in 2011 and pledges to cooperate in "maritime security, aligned with international laws and the law of each country". This statement marks a new beginning in US-Vietnam relations especially in defense and security front and has come a long way since establishing diplomatic ties in 1995. Vietnam's General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong will be on his first visit to the US in June this year.

The underlying tone of this friendship is the changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region with Washington easing its arms embargo on Vietnam in October 2014. The US recognises Vietnam as an important factor in its rebalance strategy and is committed in strengthening Vietnam's maritime capabilities. When Washington partially lifted its arms embargo on Hanoi, it was restricted to only acquiring maritime surveillance and security related systems. Now, US Senator John McCain is advocating selling more 'defensive weapons' to Vietnam in the event of an increasing tension with China in the region.

It may take a while for the two nations to completely put aside their notions left over from the war, but US-Vietnam ties are definitely improving and may emerge as a strong partnership in the changing security realm of the Asia-Pacific. What is important is that Washington's new friend in the region is willing to work on the challenges in the bilateral relationship and tap in to the opportunities in the maritime domain.

The US is re-focusing on its relationship with the region and Ashton Carter's current visit provides a glimpse of the policy priorities for the region in Washington. Carter will visit India in the last leg of his Asia-Pacific tour. For some time now, New Delhi has positioned itself as a natural choice for Hanoi. It will also be interesting to see the outcome of Carter's visit to India in the backdrop of the new Washington-Hanoi friendship.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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