The second visit in two years of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Vietnam turns a page in the relationship between the former Cold War nemeses. Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill along with their over 5,000 officers and crew concluded a five-day visit to Da Nang early this month, marking the 25th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations in grand fashion. The move sent important messages to the region and is yet another indicator of a growing U.S.-Vietnam security relationship.
The visit put China on notice that its neighbors, especially those targeted by its assertive South China Sea policies, still see the United States as the security partner of choice. Coming on the heels of the latest U.S.-led Cobra Cold multilateral exercises in Thailand, the visit served as a counter to Beijing’s growing but still much more nascent security engagement with its neighbors. This competition was highlighted just days after the Theodore Roosevelt’s departure when neighboring Cambodia commenced its fourth annual Golden Dragon joint military exercises with China, which will run until the end of the month.
Although trade and currency issues continue to plague U.S.-Vietnam ties, the visit contributes to ongoing efforts aimed at elevating bilateral relations from a comprehensive to a strategic partnership. Major strides in recent years, including more frequent high-level visits and increased security assistance, have generated positive momentum in this direction. In 2017, President Donald Trump made Hanoi his first stop in Southeast Asia, paying a state visit and attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Da Nang. This was followed in January and July 2018 with visits by former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
In terms of security assistance, Vietnam received over $26.25 million under the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative through fiscal year 2018. The regional initiative is designed to bolster littoral states’ maritime domain awareness. In 2017 and 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense augmented this with an additional $16 million to contribute to the country’s maritime capacity buildup. In a visit to Vietnam last November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the transfer of a second decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter to the Southeast Asian country. The first one was transferred in 2017.
It can only be expected that Washington will double down on courting Hanoi as ties with longtime treaty ally the Philippines remain under stress. Should U.S. access to forward facilities in the Philippines be constrained, Vietnam’s long maritime frontage could provide alternative hubs to support U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. With a defense budget consistently hovering at about 2 percent of the country’s GDP, Vietnam may be seen as a more capable regional security partner, and one without the encumbrances and fear of entrapment associated with formal treaty alliances. This said, interoperability may eventually require more institutionalized cooperation.
The second U.S. aircraft carrier visit signals Vietnam’s openness to engage major powers so long as they can contribute to fostering regional stability. It is a pushback against Chinese attempts to curb the security interactions of regional coastal states with external powers. Vietnam’s fielding of a higher ranking official to lead the welcome ceremony for the visiting American sailors is another subtle signal of the growing importance it attaches to its relationship with the United States. During the groundbreaking visit of USS Carl Vinson in 2018—the first by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the end of the Vietnam War—Lam Quang Minh, the director of the municipal Department of External Relations, chaired the occasion. For the Roosevelt’s visit, Ho Ky Minh, the vice chair of Da Nang’s People’s Committee, the second highest-ranking official in the city, presided over the ceremony. In both visits, representatives from the local military, naval, and border guard commands were present and the visitors paid courtesy calls to high officials of the city and the Vietnamese Navy.
The visit could also portend a new willingness from Hanoi to cultivate military relations with other powers in order to counter China’s growing interference in its marine economic activities in the South China Sea. But Hanoi continues to walk a tightrope, seeking to signal its displeasure to Beijing while remaining cautious not to overdo it. Thus, despite U.S. lobbying, Vietnam has yet to yield to an annual port visit request. After the USS Carl Vinson’s historic visit in 2018, no U.S. aircraft carrier was invited to drop anchor last year. And even with the increased frequency of visits from U.S. surface ships, allowing U.S. rotational troop presence or base access may still be a tall order given Vietnam’s historical aversion to military alliances, siding with one country against another, and to foreign bases on its sovereign soil—the “three nos” of its traditional security policy.
The “three nos” are not static, however. The addition in its 2019 Defense White Paper of a fourth “no”—no use of force or threat to use force in its international relations—and one “depend” – depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary and appropriate defense and military relations with other countries—suggests an evolving defense posture. The interpretation of these new “four nos and one depend” will be shaped by the country’s perceived external security threats, thus putting the onus squarely on Beijing.
Indeed, at 25 years old, U.S.-Vietnam security relations have come a long way. Vietnam’s desire to shore-up its defense capabilities, push back against external threats, and balance its relations with great powers will continue to inform Hanoi’s engagement with Washington in this realm. For the United States, Vietnam can be a robust partner in defending access to critical sea lanes and the maritime commons and promoting peaceful resolution of disputes. The permanence of these respective interests suggests that the vitality of their security ties will likely be sustained going forward.