Features | Security | Southeast Asia

US Cosies up to Vietnam

Worried about China’s strengthening navy and South China Sea claim, the former adversaries are setting ideology aside.

By Mohan Balaji for

The great Victorian era statesman and British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston once said: ‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.’ He would presumably have loved to live long enough to see the USS John McCain visit Danang port in Vietnam last month.

This visit, along with one a few days earlier by the aircraft carrier the USS George Washington, marked the 15th anniversary of the establishment of Vietnam-US diplomatic relations, when two former Cold War foes started on the journey toward friendship.

It’s an interesting irony that the United States is extending the hand of strategic co-operation to Vietnam as it remains mired in a modern-day version of Vietnam— the war in Afghanistan. But the increased interest in the region also suggests that the United States is beginning to look beyond Afghanistan as it prepares to withdraw after a decade-long conflict.

The big question is what has prompted this intensification of interest now. But it’s a question with an easy answer—Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture in South-east Asia generally, and in the mineral-rich South China Sea in particular.

The apparent shift in US policy came to global attention in July, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating at the ASEAN Regional Forum that the United States saw the South China Sea as a global commons; she also suggested that China should peacefully settle sovereignty issues with contending nations.

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In effect, she was hinting that the US has its own national interests in the South China Sea. But this shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. After all, Clinton had said a year earlier at the same forum that the US would return to South-east Asia. This was seen at the time as a confidence building gesture among US partners in the region. But there was also a clear strategic element to her follow-up remarks in Hanoi a year later—Vietnam has now been drawn into a huddle with the United States, not least because it occupies more of the contentious Spratly Islands than any other nation.

Clinton’s move followed Chinese claims that the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, were now a ‘core interest,’ making it on par with Tibet and Taiwan, and thus making any outside interference taboo in Chinese eyes. In response, Clinton proposed that the US help establish an international mechanism to mediate the overlapping claims of sovereignty between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia that now exist in the South China Sea.

But if balancing Chinese influence is one motivation, a related consideration is the desire for access to the oil and mineral rich Spratly Islands and surrounding waters. The US clearly believes that such access will be facilitated by employing a political and economic balance of power strategy—with the ultimate goal of the US attaining its own kind of hegemony in South-east Asia.

The potential for such influence is underscored by a statement issued by the Singaporean foreign minister in Hanoi confirming that both Russia and the United States could become members of the East Asia Summit in two years time.

South-east Asian nations are growing increasingly wary of an overbearing China in their backyard, and although few (if any) want to get in the middle of Sino-US tensions, they find themselves caught in a dilemma: they want to be economically close to China, but are worried about its military.

The evolving nature and perceived threat of China’s policy was underscored in March 2009, when the US ocean surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable was harassed by Chinese vessels south of Hainan. China argued that the ocean surveillance programme couldn’t be carried out in waters so close to its territory, while the US countered that the operations were legitimate activity and part of the freedom of navigation granted it and others in a country’s exclusive economic zone by international law.

China’s vigorous response to all this is perhaps best understood in light of comments by Su Hao, a researcher on Asia-Pacific studies with the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University, who said many ‘subtle changes’ had taken place in the South China Sea over the past year. He argued that countries including Vietnam were becoming much tougher in their positions, while Washington was acting like a bully.

‘I'm sure the US is the basic reason for the change—it is supporting the other sides,’ Su said. ‘During a recent visit to Vietnam, I told a Vietnamese officer with a diplomatic background that our late leader Deng Xiaoping had said “since we can't solve the South China Sea issue, we can leave it to the next generation which will be smarter.”’

According to Su, the Vietnamese officer replied: ‘That is why we have to solve it now.’

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But a more substantive sign of deepening US-Vietnam co-operation than the symbolism of a naval visit is the planned US-Vietnam nuclear deal, which has shaken the Chinese establishment. Agreement on bilateral nuclear cooperation is expected to be reached later this year, and it’s believed that the Obama administration may shy away from demanding a pledge that no uranium enrichment will take place (unlike a similar deal with the United Arab Emirates, when such a pledge was secured).

China argues that such a deal reflects US double-standards. Why, after all, is it taking a hard line on Iran but not Vietnam? And why has the US objected so vigorously to the China-Pakistan nuclear deal? In Chinese eyes the answer is clear—because Vietnam is strategically useful to the United States.

And what is motivating Vietnam? Economics. Much has changed in the country since 1986, when the ruling communist party adopted a reform agenda known as doi moi, which envisaged strong economic development. And as Vietnam began to open up to the world, it started to pursue a foreign policy in line with its economic needs.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, any kind of nuclear umbrella it may have counted on was removed, and so it felt compelled to reach out to former adversaries such as the US. At the time, few would have banked on the two former adversaries, with their markedly differing ideologies, becoming friends. Yet the recent calls by the USS George Washington and USS John McCain are only the culmination of advances made under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who both visited Vietnam while in office. Meanwhile, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and Prime Ministers Phan Van Khai and Nguyen Tan Dung all visited the United States.

The closer US-Vietnam ties come at a time when the People’s Liberation Army is growing increasingly assertive, and there seems to have been a marked shift from the days of Mao and Deng Xiaoping, when the Party controlled the gun. During Hu Jintao’s presidency, the PLA has increased its hold on the Chinese government, especially over foreign policy.

But there’s also an interesting but often unaddressed side question to all this—which country has done most to facilitate the blossoming US-Vietnam ties? That country would be India. With its ‘Look East’ policy, Vietnam is seen by India as a possible counterweight to China’s influence, while the US sees India and Vietnam as a way of balancing China.

This counterweight approach is starkest in co-operation over naval influence, an area where all three nations have expressed particular concerns about China’s growing strength. It has been argued that China would prove a much tougher adversary than Russia as the former could eventually be considered a continental power as well as a formidable naval power able to project its influence regionally, unlike Russia whose dominance essentially remained based on the continent.

It’s a point apparently not lost on the United States.