Analysts tend to agree that the recent visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Vietnam has sent a powerful signal to China that the United States is in the South China Sea to stay.
But aside from the five-day port call’s symbolic significance, several expert analysts caution that Vietnam’s next steps in strengthening defense ties with the U.S. are likely to be both cautious and carefully calibrated.
“The visit always was viewed by both sides as largely symbolic, so at that level it can be viewed as a success,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says regarding the carrier’s visit, “I’d caution against getting too far ahead of ourselves in over-reading the ramifications.”
“The follow-on steps will likely remain calibrated and incremental,” says Dr. Koh. “No quantum leaps.”
According to Hiebert, Vietnam will want to move cautiously not only in order to avoid antagonizing China but also because of how improving relations will be received by conservatives in Vietnam’s military, who continue to suffer from an “America syndrome,” a legacy of the Vietnam War.
Communist Party control
Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party.
David Brown, a former U.S. diplomat and now a journalist who frequently visits Vietnam, notes that Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made his career as a Party theorist.
Trong outmaneuvered former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a power contest at a Party Congress in January 2016 and is now regarded as Vietnam’s leading political figure.
Bill Hayton, an author who has written extensively on China, Vietnam, and the South China Sea for the BBC, says that Trong regarded Nguyen Tan Dung’s most powerful comrades as too individualistic, too corrupt, and too pro-American.
Some of those allies have been given jail sentences or have been ousted from their positions.
And as Hayton notes, Vietnam has a policy of “three nos” when it comes to its foreign relations: no foreign bases on its territory, no military alliances, and no involving third parties in its disputes.
Vietnam isn’t about to sign off on a U.S.-led containment of China, says Hayton.
On the other hand, says David Brown, “if the U.S. chooses to contest China’s bid for hegemony over the South China Sea and its littoral, Vietnam is the essential local partner.”
No other Southeast Asian nation has been willing speak out or to stand up to Chinese incursions in the South China Sea to the degree that Vietnam or Vietnamese citizens have.
On May 14, 2014, when China moved an oil-drilling rig near Vietnam's central coast, it triggered anti-Chinese rioting.
More than 20 people, many of them from China and Taiwan, were killed, according to news agency reports at the time. Hundreds of Chinese fled from Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia.
In the end, China withdrew the rig.
Anti-Chinese feelings can still be detected today throughout Vietnam, based partly on a centuries-long history of Vietnamese struggles against Chinese domination.
China’s invasion of northern Vietnam in 1979 added to harsh feelings toward China. Military experts tend to agree that Vietnamese troops performed better than the Chinese in the resulting border war.
But the Chinese triggered anger when their departing troops damaged civilian homes, a railroad, and a hospital on their way out of the country. Some of the Chinese troops also looted Vietnamese homes.
A Vietnamese driver once told this commentator that he hated the Chinese.
I asked him why. He responded with one word: “History.”
Brown says, however, that the current leadership under Nguyen Phu Trong has made “a sustained effort to improve relations with China, building on ideological affinity.”
This detente follows periods of tension between the two sides centered on a number of South China Sea islands claimed by both China and Vietnam as well as by several other nations.
The human side
In the end, the contacts between American sailors and the Vietnamese whom they met in Da Nang may leave a stronger impression on some Vietnamese than that left by the aircraft carrier itself.
During the ship’s port call from March 5 to 9, some of the sailors visited an orphanage and a center for the treatment of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant sprayed widely on forests by the U.S. military that ended up poisoning many rural Vietnamese.
Other sailors played soccer and basketball with their Vietnamese counterparts.
In a much-commented-on performance, a U.S. Navy singer backed by a Navy band sang a song devoted to unity and reconciliation by Trinh Cong Son, one of Vietnam’s most popular singer-songwriters during the Vietnam War.
Son, who was sometimes described as the “Bob Dylan of Vietnam”, because of his anti-war songs, had some of his works banned by North and South Vietnam during the war.
When a Navy singer launched into Son’s unity song in perfect Vietnamese, a Vietnamese crowd began clapping, swaying, and sometimes singing along with her.
This moment may be remembered much longer by some Vietnamese than the carrier visit itself.
Some experts had expected that the Vietnamese government would restrain Vietnamese press coverage of the carrier’s port call in order not to offend China. But that appears not to have happened.
Tuoi Tre, a popular Vietnamese newspaper and online site, ran at least five stories during the visit. And VietnamNet, another popular site, published three stories.
What comes next
In 2016, President Barack Obama lifted all legal constraints on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam.
But this has not come to much so far.
Hiebert of CSIS says that the U.S. has tried to get Vietnam to expand joint naval exercises with Vietnam but that Hanoi has consistently declined in order to avoid antagonizing China.
More joint naval exercises and joint training are now possible, though, he says.
Beyond the delicacy of handling Chinese sensibilities, deeper U.S.-Vietnam military engagement and arms sales would face a potential hurdle in the fact that Hanoi’s military remains primarily trained and equipped along Russian lines in a relationship dating back to when the former Soviet Union backed the communist North in the Vietnam War.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.