Closer Vietnam-US ties not based on Beijing issues, says conference

Vietnamese and American experts offered different perspectives on handling China.
By RFA Staff
2024.01.25
Closer Vietnam-US ties not based on Beijing issues, says conference President Joe Biden and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Sept. 10, 2023.
Evan Vucci/AP

There are stark differences in the ways the United States and Vietnam approach their relationships with China, participants at a recent U.S.-Vietnam conference in Washington, D.C. said. 

Yet they agreed that the strategic alignment between Vietnam and the United States is not all about how Washington deals with Beijing. 

“The strategic interests that the U.S. and Vietnam share … are about far more than China and how we think about the China relationship,” Lindsey Ford, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, told the meeting held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.

“We should avoid looking at U.S.-Vietnam security ties through the lens of U.S.-China competition,” said another participant, Bich Tran, postdoctoral fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS).

Vietnam and the U.S. elevated their bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level in international cooperation, in September 2023 during President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi. The upgrade is seen by some as part of the efforts by both countries to manage security and economic challenges posed by an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

Hanoi in particular has been worried about tensions in the South China Sea between China and other countries in the region.

“I think in some ways … some of the concerns we may have about the behavior that we're seeing coming out of Beijing are similar it doesn't mean though that the only reason the United States and Vietnam have or would want to work together is because of China,” Ford said, “I would say the United States and Vietnam have a lot of interests in rule of law, in seeing operational behavior that accords with rule of law.”

Some of China’s activities in the maritime domain, including in the South China Sea, were “extremely unsafe and dangerous for us,” according to the U.S. defense official.

“We believe that countries and their military and law and law enforcement forces should operate in a way that accords with international law,” she said.

“In terms of U.S. and Vietnamese leadership, they all agree that China's behavior is their concern [but] I think Vietnam and U.S. leaders have different emphases on their approach,” said Bich Tran. “The U.S. focuses mostly on competition, but Vietnam is focused on cooperation with China because of the geographical proximity and the similarities of the political systems.”

Vietnamese senior diplomat, Nguyen Hung Son, said that while the U.S. and Vietnam “see eye to eye on very clear violations of international law, especially in the South China Sea we also agree that there is a necessity to manage the relationship with China.”

“Even a superpower like the U.S. also needs to manage its relationship with China. You’d rather have a good relationship with China than a troubling one,” said Son, who serves as vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

“We are an immediate neighbor to China, the risk for anything that goes wrong in our relationship with China is a lot higher than that of the United States and therefore you will see that there’s a lot of prudence in our handling of the bilateral relationship with China,” he added.

Vietnam is carefully watching recent developments between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea and “drawing lessons” from it.

“We are also exploring opportunities to collaborate with other ASEAN member states as the South China Sea is a concern not only to Vietnam and other littoral states but to the whole ASEAN,” the diplomat said.

“Policies around the South China Sea should be founded around strengthening international law and building capabilities to help countries in the region enforce international law in the region.”

Military-to-military relationship

There was a certain “over enthusiasm” about U.S.-Vietnam military cooperation after the two countries agreed on their comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP), according to Nguyen Hung Son.

“Barely 10 days after President [Biden] visited Hanoi and upgraded the relationship there was this report on Reuters which alleged that there were talks between Vietnam and U.S. officials on a sale of F-16 [fighters] to Vietnam,” Son said.

“If you believe, or are made to believe, that defense sales are the thing that follows the CSP, I’m sorry, you’re going to be disappointed,” he said. “While the U.S. might think about the CSP in terms of deterrence, the Vietnamese, and probably the rest of ASEAN, thinks of the CSP more in terms of resilience.”

“The purpose [of the CSP] is to strengthen Vietnam’s capability to resist influence and to lessen dependencies on nearby major powers,” Son added.

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The U.S. donated a decommissioned Hamilton-class cutter to Vietnam in July, 2021. (U.S. Embassy in Hanoi)

The U.S. will continue to work with Vietnam to enhance military cooperation, according to deputy assistant secretary of defense Lindsay Ford.

“In terms of emerging areas of cooperation, there’s obviously an awful lot we’re doing related to maritime security. We are doing a lot and want to continue with helping Vietnam build its own maritime domain awareness capabilities,” she said, adding that the U.S. continues “to look at new technologies and capabilities that we can help with.”

“Cyber security is something that … remains a key vulnerability for militaries across the world. U.S. Congress has been very focused on a pilot Southeast Asia cyber capacity building program and this is an area we want to continue to grow with partners including Vietnam.”

The U.S. official said defense trade is also a potential area of cooperation.

In December 2022, Hanoi held the first trade Expo to showcase its defense industry as well as to seek potential providers in order to diversify the market.

Another is planned for December, Vietnam's defense ministry said Friday.

The U.S. plans to be there again this year, Ford said.

“This is an area that is not just about what the U.S. through commercial or other means has to offer, but increasingly where there may be opportunities for us to think about research or co-production together in the future,” she noted.

Vietnamese officials have been speaking of the concept of “strategic trust” that Hanoi wants to grow with its major strategic partners.

“The United States is an important security partner of Vietnam and Hanoi has become increasingly more comfortable in working with Washington,” said Bich Tran from the NUS.

Since Washington lifted its arms embargo against Hanoi in 2016, American drones and coast guard cutters have been transferred to Vietnam. 

It appears that more arms transfers may be in the pipeline.

“Is there room for sales of F-16? I would say that I wouldn't foresee that is coming tomorrow but I wouldn't rule that out to come at some point,” said Nguyen Hung Son. “I’m not going to rule out that defense trade and defense cooperation is going to be at some point a very important pillar of Vietnam-U.S. cooperation.”

Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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