A U.S. sailor and a Vietnamese musician perform at a music performance at a public square as part of the visit to Vietnam of U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in Danang, Vietnam March 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters

The USS Carl Vinson has ended its historic visit to Vietnam. Arriving in Da Nang on Monday accompanied by a missile guided cruiser, a destroyer and about 6,500 crew members, the aircraft carrier’s visit attracted global attention during the past week.

The five-day port call to Vietnam’s central coastal city, where US combat troops first landed in 1965 to fully engage in the Vietnam War (also known as the American War), was widely seen as a highly symbolic and significant event as it is the first time a US aircraft carrier docked in the nation since the end of that deadly, devastating war in 1975.

As it also came with the backdrop of China’s growing aggressiveness in the disputed South China Sea, many international news outlets and foreign policy analysts interpreted the unprecedented tour not only as a sign of the burgeoning relationship between the two former war foes but also an effort by Washington and Hanoi to counter Beijing’s maritime expansionism.

But the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, refuted such interpretations.

On Tuesday, the publication ran a piece with a blunt headline: “USS Carl Vinson’s Vietnam visit will be to little avail,” in which it blatantly stated, “Enhanced military exchanges between Washington and Hanoi will not generate any special tools to pressure China” and any trips by US “warships to the South China Sea […] will only waste money.”

It made such statements because for the outlet, while the South China Sea may still be “a good place for [the US] to flex muscles”, it is “comprehensive strength” that primarily “shapes the geopolitics there” and that “China has become stronger in affecting the overall situation” in the area.

“If needed, Beijing has the capability of militarizing the Nansha Islands [the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands] overnight and is more capable than before of deploying warships, the air force and missiles to deter Washington’s South China Sea activities,” it threateningly went on.

In an earlier editorial, the paper also claimed the US “no longer predominates” in the region.

Such assertions are no surprise not only because the party-backed publication is well known for its nationalistic, belligerent posture but also because of the fact that over recent years China aggressively built massive islands in the disputed waters and constructed huge permanent military-related facilities on them, enormously changing the status quo in its favor. What’s more, Chinese officials and leaders publicly admitted, even hailed, their maritime expansion.

Media organizations and observers around the world, especially in Western countries, widely – and rightly – regarded the American fleet’s Vietnam trip as a moved aimed at the Asian behemoth

These are also the exact reasons why media organizations and observers around the world, especially in Western countries, widely – and rightly – regarded the American fleet’s Vietnam trip as a moved aimed at the Asian behemoth.

Without doubt, though both Washington and Hanoi didn’t officially say it, shared concerns about China’s maritime actions – or what US Senator John McCain calls “rising Chinese aggression, expansionism, and opposition to the rules-based international order” – are a dominant factor that has brought the two countries substantially closer together in recent years.

The aircraft carrier’s landmark trip and many other breakthroughs in US-Vietnam relations, such as Nguyen Phu Trong’s trip – the first by a Vietnamese communist leader – to the US in 2015 and Washington’s lifting of the decades-long arms ban on Vietnam during president Barrack Obama’s 2016 visit – could not have occurred, or happened that early, if China had not acted in such a manner in the region in recent years.

From the Vietnamese side, there were two events that probably accelerated the country’s ties with the world’s superpower and its former foe. The first took place in May 2014, when China placed a giant state-owned oil rig, HYSY 981, well inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Last summer, Beijing threatened to use armed force to coerce Hanoi to cancel a joint oil exploration project at a location it calls 136/03 though the area exploration is, as pointed out, just 200 nautical miles from Vietnam and more than 650 nautical miles from the Chinese coast.

The Global Times and some of its contributors dismissed the relevance of the USS Carl Vinson’s port call and, consequently, suggested that China should ignore it. Yet, at the same time, it says, “China’s vigilance and unhappiness are inevitable.”

This also means Beijing was somehow anxious about the visit even though both Washington and Hanoi openly stated it was only about US-Vietnam relations, not about China’s maritime activities and, more importantly, its mission and activities were non-military in nature.

In a statement on March 5, Senator McCain said the USS Carl Vinson’s historic port call “underscores the enormous progress the United States and Vietnam have made in transcending the wounds of war and building a close partnership.”

The former Vietnam prisoner of war and now a great friend of Vietnam added, “For those of us who fought in the Vietnam War, as well as for those of us who worked to normalize US-Vietnam relations [such a] remarkable advancement […] surpasses our fondest hopes.”

Indeed, despite their past enmities and current ideological dissimilarities, the US and Vietnam have immensely expanded their cooperation since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1995 and especially over the past few years.

Judging by the warm reactions of Vietnam’s state-controlled media and the Vietnamese public toward the Carl Vinson’s trip and the activities of its personnel, it is very likely that US-Vietnam ties will further improve in the years to come

Judging by the warm reactions of Vietnam’s state-controlled media and the Vietnamese public toward the Carl Vinson’s trip and the activities of its personnel, it is very likely that US-Vietnam ties will further improve in the years to come.

While it may not profoundly shift the balance of power in the region, a stronger partnership between the world’s most powerful nation, which now regards China as its top security concern, and the country currently seen as the region’s most vocal opponent of Beijing’s maritime claims and actions will be a huge disadvantage for China.

That could be a key reason behind Beijing’s “vigilance and unhappiness” about the USS Carl Vinson’s trip.

During their stay in Da Nang, American sailors took part in various social, cultural, sports and humanitarian activities and interactions with local people, all of which were widely covered by state news outlets and discussed on social media. Many of their gestures and efforts – such as holding and embracing orphans or performing a popular Vietnamese song about national unity, solidarity and peace – deeply touched the Vietnamese.

Hardly, if ever, has any visit by a foreigner or a foreign group generated such widespread coverage or elicited such a positive reaction.

Vietnam has an increasingly favorable view of the US, according to Pew Research Center’s surveys. For instance, the nonpartisan American think-tank’s 2014 survey found that 76% of Vietnamese viewed the US positively. That increased to 86% in 2017. By comparison, only 10% of the Vietnamese public viewed China favorably last year.

Some outsiders may question such findings. But, if they followed the Carl Vinson’s Vietnam visit, they now probably understand and believe them.

The massive, powerful carrier may be a symbol of America’s “hard power”. Yet, what the US Navy supercarrier brought to Vietnam during this visit was actually “soft power.”

If “soft power” is a core element of a country’s foreign policy and international influence and the purpose of the Carl Vinson’s visit was to enhance the US’s cooperation with Vietnam, the outing was, contrary to what the Global Times claimed, undoubtedly worth every penny.

This value is amplified when taking into account that China spends heavily (reportedly around US$10 billion a year, about half the size of Cambodia’s GDP) to promote its “soft power” but apparently fails to achieve it or, worse, becomes what some lately call a “sharp power.”

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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