US and Vietnam Should Tread Carefully on Relations

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US and Vietnam Should Tread Carefully on Relations

While a strategic relationship makes sense on paper, both sides should temper their expectations.

US and Vietnam Should Tread Carefully on Relations
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr.com

In recent months, a popular sentiment within some circles in Washington has been the possibility of a strategic relationship between the United States and Vietnam. In a recent paper , Dr. Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), advocated a number of steps that could be undertaken jointly by Washington and Hanoi in order to curb what many perceive to be “aggressive behavior” by China in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the measures Cronin suggests include the development of cost-imposition strategies to deter Chinese attempts of altering the current status-quo in the region; larger and more frequent bilateral exercises; and the lifting of the U.S. ban of lethal arms sales to Vietnam.

Perhaps most notable among the measures offered by Cronin is the proposed lifting of lethal arms sales, which in recent months has gained support from a number of influential political and military leaders, including Senator John McCain and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, whose recent trip to Vietnam made him the highest ranking military official to visit the country since 1971. For two countries that only reestablished official diplomatic ties less than twenty years ago, the relationship appears to be moving a rapid pace. Perhaps a bit too rapidly.

It is not difficult to find reasons why there are advocates in both countries who are in favor of such a relationship. For the United States, its overt core interests in the Asia-Pacific region are stability and the continuation of the current order it helped establish following the conclusion of the Second World War. Tacitly, it has a vested interest in maintaining its position as the dominant regional power – which in turn means that it must compete with a rising China, which seeks to wear the crown west of the Hawaiian islands.

Since the Obama administration’s 2011 announcement of its directive, the U.S. has sought to solidify long-standing regional alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, among others. The addition of a strategic partnership with Vietnam would be a major “get” in terms of strengthening its already formidable alliance portfolio in the region. From a security standpoint, an amicable relationship with a rapidly modernizing Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) would give the United States yet another asset in the region, allowing for one more country to share in the responsibility of monitoring Chinese military activity in the region. Additionally, bringing Vietnam into a U.S.-led security architecture could present another set of challenges for Beijing to consider before undertaking actions in the region that could be seen as provocative, such as a unilateral move to assert one of its myriad territorial claims in the region, or placing another oil rig inside a country’s EEZ. For Vietnam, a stronger relationship with the United States could equal more breathing space from both security and perhaps more importantly, economic standpoints. Despite the potential positives both countries could net under such an arrangement, it is easier said than done.

From the perspective of Hanoi, any increased engagement with the United States at the expense of its long-established ties with China should be seen as a risky endeavor. Its economic ties with China run deep, as the country receives 30 percent of its total imports from its neighbor to the north; along with Chinese direct foreign investment (FDI), which skyrocketed from $370 million in 2012 to an all-time high of $2.3 billion in 2013. Additionally, Chinese companies account for up to 90 percent of construction, engineering and procurement contracts in Vietnam’s various domestic industrial zones. And while the Vietnamese people may support closer ties with the United States, continued Chinese investment will likely trump such sentiment in the eyes of its government that values economic stability over friendship.

And while some schools of thought believe that Vietnam’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations will free it from the shackles of economic dependence with China, a TPP-minted Vietnam could in fact do the opposite, as Chinese companies have rushed to invest in Vietnam’s textile market in order to reap the benefits that the TPP is projected to provide. Even though its government has realized the importance of diversification away from China, a rapprochement with the United States is not enough to allow it to stray too far from Beijing’s economic orbit. Perhaps aware of this fact, Hanoi elected to allow its populace a brief “steam release” in the form of nationalist protests directed at China over the its placement of the HD-981 oil rig in its EEZ in May, followed by Vietnam’s government dialing down the anti-China sentiment after a few weeks.

In recent weeks Vietnam has continued to mend fences with China. Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh recently described the oil rig incident as merely a small disagreement among “brothers,” while Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is believed to have a “pro-West” outlook, was barred by Hanoi from travelling to the United States during the standoff. When a Vietnamese delegation was finally dispatched to Washington following China’s removal of the rig, Minh was noticeably absent. Such actions would indicate a strong faction within the Vietnamese government still has a deep-rooted interest in continuing its close ties with Beijing. Finally, last week Politburo Member Le Hong Anh was dispatched to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which both sides agreed to “…avoid actions that might complicate and expand the disputes”–language clearly directed by Beijing towards Washington.

Vietnam’s lack of leverage with China, as well as the desire of some within its government to obtain more of it, should caution American officials when deciding how far and how fast they wish to pursue engagement with Vietnam. Hanoi’s recent “diplomatic flirtations” with Japan, India and the United States, and the length at which they pursue such relationships, could be used as strong bargaining chips when negotiating with China. A former senior State Department official interviewed for this article expressed “..concern that [we] could be tying our interests with actors who have regional and national interests that vary greatly from our own.”

During his visit to Vietnam, General Dempsey said that he felt ”the maritime domain is the place of our greatest common interest right now, common security interest. My recommendation, if the ban is lifted, will be that we start with that.” While the United States does have a stated national interest of seeing a continuation of stability in the region, its definition of stability likely varies greatly from that of Vietnam, which sees stability as its ownership of disputed territories in the region.

While the United States could use its newfound friendship with Vietnam to encourage restraint regarding its territorial disputes with other claimants, it is also possible that Hanoi could feel emboldened with an unfounded confidence that the U.S. would in some way support escalated actions on its part (the sale of arms to Vietnam, for example). And while the United States has spent decades carefully crafting relationships with other regional states to the point where a great deal of mutual understanding can be relied upon during a time of crisis, no such relationship exists with Vietnam. Considering the high volume of inter-state disputes currently taking place in the region, making new security partnerships under the current climate could be akin to meeting a stranger in a street and following them into gunfight. Both the United States and Vietnam should tread carefully.