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In a sign of enhanced strategic ties, the United States will send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam, a naval visit that will herald deeper and stronger bilateral cooperation in the South China Sea vis-à-vis China.
The announcement came earlier this month when Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met his American counterpart General Jim Mattis in Washington on August 8. When the American warship docks in Vietnam next year, it will represent the first such US visit since the end of the Vietnam War over four decades ago.
A Pentagon statement on Lich’s red carpet visit to Washington said strong defense relationship “promotes regional and global security” and was based broadly on common interests in “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea”, “respect for international law” and “recognition of national sovereignty.”
The announcement came as Vietnam strives to diversify its defense relations with an eye on China’s island-building and militarization of nearby sea features. In recent months Vietnam has deepened its defense cooperation with India and Japan, both strong US regional allies.
The US and Vietnam are not yet formal strategic partners. The possible emerging quadrilateral all share the values outlined in the US Pentagon statement and a rising suspicion of China’s intentions in the maritime area.
While Vietnam maintains strong strategic ties with neighboring China, part and parcel of its staunchly independent foreign policy, the two sides have jousted more than cooperated in recent months.
That was seen most clearly in China’s strong call on Vietnam to stop energy exploration in contested waters, with some reports claiming Beijing even threatened the use of force if the Spanish energy company, Repsol, it commissioned to conduct the offshore activities in a contested block area did not immediately halt and withdraw. Repsol left the area earlier this week.
Some analysts believe the rising disputes are driving a recalibration of Hanoi’s ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ independent foreign policy towards friendlier US relations. Bilateral ties grew steadily under the previous Barack Obama administration, despite Obama’s priority on human rights promotion, a perennial sticking point in relations.
The Donald Trump administration has given special emphasis to Vietnamese ties, witnessed in Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to the White House in May, the only Southeast Asian leader to be received at the West Wing since Trump’s inauguration in January.
A comprehensive partnership, entered in July 2013, sets out multiple areas of cooperation, including an agreement allowed the US to open its first foreign university on Vietnamese soil (which by local law must teach Marxism-Leninism.) The partnership, touted at the time as a “dramatic transformation” of relations, also includes provisions for “joint maritime capacity building.”
Defense cooperation was hampered previously by a decades-old lethal arms embargo that was only lifted in May last year. The US aircraft carrier visit next year would not have been possible with the embargo in place. Where the US carrier will dock in Vietnam is not yet known, but to send a strong signal to China the obvious spot would be Cam Ranh Bay, a deep water strategic port that faces out onto the South China Sea.
The port already hosts different foreign navies, but the military side of the facility has been off limits to all expect Russia, a Cold War ally and major arms supplier. Greater US access to the facility, particularly in light of losing an earlier envisaged foothold on the Philippine island of Palawan, would provide an immediate strategic advantage against China.
The move towards more US cooperation comes as Vietnam appears to lose a measure of faith in the efficacy of rules-based multilateral organizations to check China’s sea advances. This month’s meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers in Manila was a case in point.
The consensus-based grouping shied from making any joint statement that condemned or even mentioned China’s fast rising militarization of the South China Sea. Vietnam, which previously joined with the Philippines to raise such complaints, now finds itself a lone critical voice as Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte opts to engage rather than confront Beijing.
With rising tensions, China and Vietnam hastily cancelled a planned meeting on the summit’s sidelines, though Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the meeting had already been held. Still, a China Daily editorial attacked Vietnam’s alleged “hypocrisy” and said its “attempt to sow seeds of discord does a disservice to itself, the other members and the region.”
It’s not clear yet, however, that stronger maritime cooperation with the US will extend beyond freedom of navigation issues. Beijing’s call on Hanoi to stop a foreign company’s exploration activities represented a significant change in tactic from previously threatening to suspend companies’ operations in China to directly leaning on Vietnam for giving the concession.
Apart from Repsol, Vietnam also recently extended Indian state oil company ONGC Videsh’s drilling license by two years in a contested South China Sea area, another move that apparently annoyed China. It is not clear how New Delhi, which has recently sold missiles to Vietnam, would respond if China raised similar hackles to ONGC’s presence in the area.
A similar question surrounds the US’ substantial offshore energy interests in Vietnam. US oil and gas giant Exxonmobil and Vietnamese state energy firm PetroVietnam signed a US$10 billion agreement to develop the so-called Blue Whale gas field off the country’s central coast in the South China Sea.
The joint venture, Vietnam’s largest gas project, aims to produce gas for power plants by 2023, an important diversification of its current reliance on coal and hydro-power for energy security amid fast-growing demand. PetroVietnam said at the project’s announcement event that it would contribute US$20 billion to state coffers, without giving a time frame.
Vietnam’s willingness to host a US aircraft carrier, a potent symbol of American deterrence, was no doubt influenced by these varied strategic interests. And with Trump set to visit Vietnam in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, the second leader-level meeting in six months, another big bilateral strategic announcement is possible.