Less than a year ago, former U.S. president Barack Obama announced his intent to completely lift the arms embargo imposed on Vietnam since 1975. Observers of the relationship have held both strong expectations and some trepidation over the trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam military relations since. Despite the complexities of the regional security environment and the sensitivities of the relationship between two former adversaries, it is fair to say that the current state of military partnership between them is at its highest point since diplomatic normalization in 1995.
This strategic military rapprochement, however, has gone largely unnoticed by the Vietnamese public, as they worry more about a United States less engaged in the Asia Pacific under the Donald Trump administration. A lack of faith in the administration to shape a sound and coherent Asia-Pacific strategy has shaken not only Vietnam, but also other alliances of the United States in the region.
For many Asian countries including Vietnam, the post-World War II system of laws and norms has ushered in a period of prosperity and stability previously unknown, and working together to protect that system is worth the challenges. The rise of an aggressive and powerful China (in both the military and economic senses), accompanied by Trump’s “America First” doctrine, have the potential to undermine the current regional structure and threaten the interests of smaller states, including U.S. regional allies and partners.
Recently, Vietnam’s strategy of delicately balancing the two superpowers has become more difficult to pull off, as several of its ASEAN neighbors have eagerly joined Chinese-led trade blocs and dispute-settling mechanisms. The balance of power in Southeast Asia has been quietly and gradually shifting in China’s favor, and perhaps no country feels it more than Vietnam. It is in this turbulent context that people seem to forget—or, more precisely, overlook—the rising significance of the military partnership between Vietnam and the United States.
U.S. Pacific Command laid out key areas of cooperation within the Vietnamese security architecture even before the arms embargo was lifted. The cooperation framework agreed upon in the September 2011 memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation includes security assistance and educational exchange between the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries. Unsurprisingly, much of the focus is on capacity building. Two distinctive areas stand out: strengthening the capacities of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) and improving Vietnam’s readiness in participating international peacekeeping operations. On May 22, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius officially delivered six 45-foot Metal Shark patrol boats to the VCG. Four days later, just before Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc arrived in Washington for an official visit, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) transferred a high-endurance cutter to the VCG during a ceremony in Honolulu.
The former Hamilton-class cutter Morgenthau, now named CBS-8020, became the largest coast guard vessel currently in the VCG’s service. There are also rumors that more vessels of this type will be transferred to the VCG in the future. Several training programs run by the USCG have commenced, improving and strengthening the VCG’s capabilities in search and rescue missions and other maneuverability procedures.
On peacekeeping operations, on August 28, a dedication ceremony in Hanoi marked the transfer of a peacekeeping training center from U.S. ownership to Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense. Along with the center, the U.S government also provided support setting up Vietnam’s first level-two field hospital. Soon after, Vietnamese peacekeeping forces conducted a running exercise of the field hospital to evaluate readiness before deployment to South Sudan.
How does all of this factor into the security partnership between Vietnam and the U.S.? We have long pointed out that the VCG has become an important element of Vietnam’s maritime strategy in light of the growing naval asymmetries with China in the South China Sea. The VCG was initially established as a means of alleviating the burden put on the navy in peacetime, but in current use also enables routine enforcement of the maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction rights granted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam is, therefore, trying to mimic the Chinese use of “white-hull” forces as a method of resisting encroachment into Vietnamese waters.
Utilizing the VCG in this way also minimizes the military and political costs of direct confrontation, should such incidents spiral up into crises. This opens the way for the government, and the party, to negotiate directly with China or other involved parties. The VCG also helps defend Vietnamese fishermen against China’s maritime militia forces masquerading as fishermen. This approach has proven successful in maintaining Vietnam’s effective control in the disputed waters and dealing with unexpected incidents at sea under pressure from China’s maritime forces.
Accordingly, most military and security cooperation between Vietnam and the United States has focused on those non-traditional areas. With Vietnam’s increased investment in its coast guard and need to establish a cohesive maritime strategy with the VCG at its heart, the United States is poised to play a decisive supporting role. Vietnam’s strategic trajectory thus far fits closely with the 2011 MoU on defense cooperation, leaving the door open to continued, enhanced guidance. Vietnamese elites supporting stronger Vietnam-U.S. military cooperation seek to establish a more determined and concrete presence in U.S. policy planning circles through the strategic partnership established in 2013. Pragmatists pushing for the relationship to focus more on practical, less sensitive areas like non-traditional security issues are similarly open to greater cooperation along those lines.
Though the public is not privy to such discussions, Vietnamese naval and strategic experts continue to debate Vietnam’s naval strategy, and maritime coordination strategy, extensively. In order for these aforementioned points to be realized, however, inclusive and active participation of the public—and civilian experts—is needed. Early results can be seen in Vietnam’s ambitious plans to massively upgrade its coast guard and to build up a coherent code of conduct to integrate the operation of the VCG and its counterpart in the armed forces.