Vietnam, the US, and China: A Love Triangle?

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During his visit to Vietnam this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. will provide “$32.5 million in new U.S. assistance for maritime law enforcement in Southeast Asian states.” Despite Kerry’s insistence that “this maritime announcement has nothing to do with any recent announcements by any other country or any of the tensions in the region,” it will almost inevitably be read as a response to China’s growing assertiveness in disputed territorial areas.

Part of the U.S. “rebalance to Asia” strategy involves bolstering U.S. ties in the region, not only with long-time allies like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, but with new partners such as Vietnam. Kerry placed his visit to Vietnam squarely within this context: “What some are calling our rebalance within the rebalance, which is an intensified focus on Southeast Asia, is now a central part of our policy … Nowhere is this more important or more visible, frankly, than in the heightened investment and engagement than right here in Vietnam.” Indeed, of the $32.5 million in U.S. assistance for maritime security, $18 million was earmarked for Vietnam, including the purchase of five new patrol boats for the Vietnamese coast guard.

Given that Vietnam has a long-standing territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, particularly over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, it’s entirely likely that these coast guard vessels will be used to patrol areas China claims as its territory. This won’t do much to erase fears in Beijing that the United States is seeking closer ties with Vietnam as part of a larger containment strategy towards China.

Vietnam-U.S. ties have developed rapidly in recent years. In July, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited the U.S. where he and President Barack Obama announced a “comprehensive partnership” between Vietnam and the United States. The partnership called for “cooperation on a whole range of issues from trade and commerce to military-to-military cooperation, to multilateral work on issues like disaster relief, to scientific and educational exchanges.”

One particular aspect of the new “comprehensive partnership,” according to the official statement, is that “President Obama and President Truong Tan Sang agreed to enhance cooperation at regional and international forums … to support peace, stability, cooperation, and development in the Asia-Pacific region.” Such U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation has generally come at China’s expense in the past.

At the 2010 ASEAN Conference in Hanoi, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially inserted the U.S. into the ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea. “The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Clinton said. She further added, “The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion. We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”

Though Clinton maintained that the U.S. takes no stand on the disputes, the fact that she announced the U.S.’s interests at a meeting in Hanoi shortly after increased China-Vietnam friction in the region seemed to signal U.S. support for Vietnam. Shortly before her speech at the ASEAN summit, Clinton promised that “we are prepared to take the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to the next level of engagement, cooperation, friendship, and partnership.” Part of this included military drills, which the U.S. and Vietnam conducted together in August 2010, a month after Clinton’s remarks.

At later multilateral forums, it became increasingly apparent that the U.S. and Vietnam (as well as other countries) were teaming up to support a “code of conduct” on the territorial disputes. China, meanwhile was against bringing the disputes into multilateral forums, preferring to deal with the issue in a bilateral setting. The rift between China and its backers and the U.S.-led coalition resulted in a spectacular failure at the 2012 ASEAN Summit, which ended without even the usual communiqué.

Beijing often accuses the U.S. of attempting to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. While the U.S. may not be actively trying to turn countries against China, it’s definitely true that the U.S. has reaped the benefits of other countries’ ambivalence toward the rising power.  In a background briefing on Clinton’s 2012 trip to Vietnam, a senior state department official said that one of the most “interesting” factors in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is the “deep and profound anti-China sentiment” in Vietnam. As a result of this, “It is undeniably the case that our relationship has improved dramatically with Vietnam.”

The U.S. has been able to capitalize on mixed feelings towards China to deepen its relations with ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular. In addition to Kerry’s visit this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Vietnam twice, once in 2010 and once in 2012. The past two U.S. Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both visited Vietnam as well, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to go in 2014.

A 2011 memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Vietnam laid out the areas for military cooperation, including senior-level defense dialogues, maritime security, search & rescue and other humanitarian activities. According to Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, the most “remarkable point” was the United States’ “strong commitment” to helping Vietnam deal with lingering consequences of the Vietnam War. an obvious sore point in the relationship.

The U.S. and Vietnam seem to have papered over their decade-long war as they strengthen new ties. The Vietnam War remains a major topic in official remarks, but mainly through examples of how the U.S. and Vietnam are both trying to overcome that legacy. The U.S. and Vietnam conduct “Joint Field Activities” to locate the remains of both Vietnamese and American soldiers who were listed as MIA after the Vietnam War. There are also ongoing efforts with U.S. assistance to control the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Still, in part because of remaining bad blood, Carl Thayer noted in his analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that Vietnam and the U.S. have only a “comprehensive partnership,” one step down from the “strategic partnership” Vietnam has with China.

China remains fairly confident that its relationship with Vietnam can withstand competition from the U.S. An article from People’s Daily (reposted by the news site Sohu) points out that despite its acceptance of U.S. aid, Vietnam still intends to honor its consensus with China by jointly protecting regional peace and stability. China has also taken its own steps to increase cooperation with Vietnam, including the October announcement that China and Vietnam will jointly explore disputed regions in the Gulf of Tonkin. Explaining the logic behind this move for the South China Morning Post, Professor Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University commented that “Beijing sees that Vietnam may become part of the China containment policy of Japan and the United States.” In Vietnam, China sees a partner that can still be swayed from becoming too close to the United States. As a result, China may practice restraint towards Vietnam that it’s not inclined to show in its disputes with both Japan and the Philippines, who are already firm U.S. allies.

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