Vietnam and U.S. Edge Closer, Thanks to China
By JUSTIN GOLDMAN And WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE and TAIPEI — Vietnam has been rattled by recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and U.S. officials are seizing the moment.
The United States is taking advantage of Vietnamese angst over Chinese arrests of Vietnamese fishermen, threats against multinational oil companies operating in Vietnamese waters, increased naval exercises and the establishment of a submarine base on Hainan Island.
Beijing appears to have abandoned its “smile campaign” toward Southeast Asia; Vietnam is responding accordingly, said Richard Bitzinger, a regional defense analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
Just days after the Chinese wrapped up a naval exercise in the South China Sea that rattled Vietnam, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu scolded Vietnam for suggesting Chinese vessels were violating the smaller country’s sovereignty in the waters near the Xisha [Paracel] Islands.
China took control of the islands after a naval battle in 1974 with then-South Vietnam.
“China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and the adjacent waters. China firmly opposes any remarks and actions that violate its sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and the adjacent waters,” Yu said on Aug. 9.
The next day, the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain arrived at Da Nang for a four-day visit to mark the 15th anniversary of normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. That came after the June 30 visit of a Vietnamese delegation to Norfolk, Va., to visit the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
“There has been a lot of progress in the relationship, but there still much more that both countries can do,” said a U.S. Department of Defense official.
In 2006, the U.S. State Department modified International Traffic in Arms Regulations on arms transfers to allow export, sale, lease or other transfer of non-lethal defense articles and services to Vietnam.
“The scope of security assistance is still limited, but it is proceeding as a pace that is comfortable to both sides,” he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is to visit Vietnam in October, marking the fourth meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart in just two years.
“These visits of high-level officials, along with information exchanges and expanded bilateral cooperation, are the pillars that the U.S.-Vietnam security relationship is built upon,” the DoD official said.
The pace has quickened since Gen. Pham Van Tra, then minister of national defense, traveled to Washington in 2003, the first visit at that level since normalization.
U.S. troops have trained Vietnamese personnel in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, maritime security, military medicine, and search-and-rescue operations.
The Pentagon has spent international military education and training funding to teach English to Vietnamese personnel.
The United States and Vietnam are to hold their first military-to-military talks in the final quarter of this year. Vietnam could agree to send officers to advanced education courses in the United States, said Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
Vietnamese officers need postgraduate degrees to qualify for senior promotion and those courses that offer master’s degrees would be prized, Thayer said.
Vietnam has been involved with the U.S. State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative, and U.S. officials have encouraged the Vietnamese to participate more actively in peacekeeping missions. As confidence in the relationship builds on both sides, the opportunities to deepen security cooperation will emerge, the DoD official said.
For the time being, Vietnam will continue to rely on Moscow for much of its advanced arms and equipment. At present, Russia remains Vietnam’s biggest arms client, and Hanoi is moving forward on efforts to procure Su-30MK2 fighter aircraft and Kilo-class diesel submarines.
The spending on subs reflects tension over disputed regional maritime boundaries.
“It’s generally conceded that Vietnam’s recent uptick in arms purchases is mostly due to Chinese expansion into the South China Sea,” Bitzinger said.
He said Beijing insists that South China Sea sovereignty issues should be decided bilaterally and that Washington should stay out of it. Vietnam’s concerns will be raised in October when Hanoi hosts the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM+8), where for the first time, dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia and United States will participate.
France is also reaching out to its former colony. French defense minister Hervé Morin visited Vietnam in July in a bid to strengthen defense ties between the two countries. Morin said Paris was keen to help Vietnam modernize its military and to develop deep ties with the defense industry. It was the first visit by a French defense minister since the defeat of France in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the retreat from its former colony.
As well, Vietnam was on the list of country sales campaigns presented by EADS marketing and strategy director Marwn Lahoud at a media seminar ahead of the Farnborough Airshow in July.
Pierre Tran contributed to this report from Paris.