In the next few days, a U.S. aircraft carrier will make a port call in Vietnam’s coastal city of Danang for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War. Though the move has long been in the works and is just a single engagement, it nonetheless bears noting given its significance for U.S.-Vietnam ties, U.S. defense policy, as well as the region more broadly.
The idea of a U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam has been in the works since last year and first surfaced publicly in the context of the meeting between Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in August 2017 (See: “US-Vietnam Defense Relations Under Trump Get A Boost With First Aircraft Carrier Visit”). Both sides have since been finalized details over several subsequent meetings and have been keeping specifics close to the chest. Before the sensationalist headlines tied to the expected visit of the USS Carl Vinson roll in, it is important to understand the broader significance of the visit on three fronts.
First, it is yet another in a series of boosts within the context of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral defense ties which, for all their limits, have been on the uptick over the past few years as I’ve observed repeatedly (See: “US-Vietnam Defense Ties: Problems and Prospects”). Though several other U.S. vessels have already visited Vietnam and both sides continue to work to expand efforts in this realm under a Trump presidency, an aircraft carrier is obviously a much bigger visible symbol of demonstration of American presence within the context of the relationship.
Within that context, the visit should be understood as not just a one-off event but part of a gradual integration of U.S. aircraft carriers in the relationship. Last October, Vietnam Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh became the highest ranking Vietnamese official to embark on a U.S. aircraft carrier when he boarded the USS Carl Vinson. And just a few days back, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States Pham Quang Vinh was given a tour of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush as part of a two-day official visit to Norfolk, Virginia. Vietnam’s hosting of a U.S. carrier would no doubt be a further step forward in this regard and would be testament to Hanoi’s growing comfort in hosting U.S. vessels as well as its increasing role in supporting U.S. efforts in the broader context of the Asia-Pacific.
Second, the aircraft carrier visit is significant in the context of U.S. regional defense strategy. As noted earlier, aircraft carriers are a way for Washington to reinforce the longstanding reality of a robust U.S. regional presence, which is particularly important in the face of anxieties over Chinese maritime assertiveness. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Vietnam visit is part of a broader voyage for the USS Carl Vinson strike group that also included a stop in the Philippines amid other engagements that have also involved the key Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea disputes (for instance, the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer was also in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia for a port visit last week).
More broadly, the visit also spotlights the role of the USS Carl Vinson itself in the context of U.S. defense planning. As Washington has wrestled with the greater operational burdens for its vessels and looked for ways to manage that growing stress – as evidenced by the recent accidents and delays facing the Seventh Fleet – one of the solutions has been the greater involvement of the Third Fleet in the Western Pacific under the Third Fleet Forward initiative since 2016, which affords greater flexibility for operations including those designed to demonstrate U.S. presence. The Carl Vinson strike group is a tangible demonstration of Third Fleet Forward, carrying out its first deployment under that banner last year, and now on its second which officially kicked off last month.
Third and finally, beyond just the United States and Vietnam, the visit also bears significance in terms of the regional context as well. As I have detailed before, there remains palpable anxiety in key Southeast Asian capitals that 2018 could see some more provocative moves by China in the South China Sea after a year where there was some relative easing of tensions (See: “Beware the Illusion of China-Philippines South China Sea Breakthroughs”). There certainly is a case for this based on various factors, including the fact that China has moved past a year of domestic consolidation with the Party Congress last year and the Trump administration is set to follow through with a tougher line on China this year on several fronts that could lead Beijing to retaliate in turn.
In that context, the carrier visit is significant not only because it reinforces Washington’s current determination on the South China Sea issue, but also because such moves leave open the future possibility that it Beijing might seize on them as a pretext for rolling out moves it already had planned on doing anyway as it has been fond of doing in the past. As is often the case in the South China Sea as with international relations more broadly, though some aspects of the significance of a single event are often clear at the outset, others become more evident in relation to others that occur thereafter.