Strengthening US-Vietnam relations: A common battle against China

Gitanjali Sinha Roy

April 27, 2020


Strengthening US-Vietnam relations: A common battle against China
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The relations between the US and Vietnam have undergone a remarkable transformation; from the turbulent history of the Vietnam War to forging stronger trade linkages and security cooperation in the recent past.

In the light of a ‘new era’ of the relationship between the US and Vietnam, this article traces the areas of mutual cooperation between the two countries; factors that may pave the way for a ‘US-led coalition among
the Quad nations and the Vietnam Axis in the Indo-Pacific’.

Vietnam’s leadership has continued to closely embrace stronger ties with the US. The Trump Administration in the US understands Vietnam’s importance in its strategy for South and Southeast Asia, where the US has wanted regional countries to take a more powerful stance against China and its aggressive maritime policies.

Vietnam has been the bravest nation among all the ASEAN countries in tackling and using sophisticated strategies to deal with Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

This incident was a clear violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This incident is a clear violation of the bilateral relations between Vietnam and China.

This strategy of Vietnam is in many ways similar to that of the US, as both the countries are working towards strengthening their links with their Asian partners, and building inter-operable regional navies and coast guards which would expand their deterrence and keep China at bay.

Vietnam has been using multiple strategies to convince other Asian countries to work together in order to protect themselves from Chinese regional hegemony and further, protect the freedom of navigation in regional and international waters.

According to the American Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Vietnam has been landfilling more South China Sea isles than China to deal with Chinese maritime aggression. Vietnam likes to flex its ‘maritime muscles’ against China and has been considered as Asia’s most aggressive maritime nation after China.

Vietnam is firm in dealing with China’s dominance in the South China Sea. It faces multiple challenges from China in the South China Sea, from its militarised artificial islands to the test deployments of capabilities from facilities on these islands.

Vietnam’s efforts in working tirelessly as the ASEAN Chair and in combating COVID-19 have been applauded by countries in Southeast Asia, as well as by Japan, South Korea, the US and Russia.

Vietnam’s willingness to cooperate on border protection – land and maritime – by working towards joint patrols and exchanges, is a way for the region to overcome the tensions over the maritime disputes caused by Chinese incursion in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, and deal with the violation of international law in the region.

The continuous aggressive behavior of China paves ways for third-party involvement in the region from the US.

The Chinese military capacities operating within the East Sea are of grave concern to Vietnam and so, it welcomes vessels of navies, coast guard, and border guard in joint operations. Last week, China rammed into and sank Vietnam’s shipping boat with eight fishermen on board, fishing in the disputed Paracel Islands.

This incident was a clear violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This incident is a clear violation of the bilateral relations between Vietnam and China.

The US also expressed rigid concern over the reckless Chinese behavior and stated, “China is unlawful on its maritime claims and creates an environment of discomfort and misbalance among the ASEAN countries and their neighbors within the South China Sea”.

Despite the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, China has continued to set up new research stations on military bases built on the Fiery Cross Reef and the Subi Reef and has landed the special military aircraft on the Fiery Cross Reef recently. It has also continued the deployment of maritime militia around the Spratly Islands.

China sharply lashed out at the US to stop sending ships and aircraft to the South China Sea and instead asked the US to focus on combating the Coronavirus. The mutual rivalry against China has further strengthened Vietnam’s position by making it a favorable regional and global partner for the US.

Vietnam’s approach towards China as a maritime threat strengthens relations between Washington and Hanoi. The US-Vietnam relationship addressed the security challenges from China, and links Vietnam’s South China Sea multilateralism strategy with the US’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Also, the US benefits from Vietnam, since the latter is the present head of the ASEAN bloc, and it can easily provide an imprimatur for the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US. If both countries work together, they can develop a combined policy and implement it regionally.

Vietnam has the largest military among all the Southeast Asian nations, best-trained forces, and a vital port in Ranh Bay, all of which is strategically a ‘good news’ for the US, especially if a conflict breaks out.

Vietnam alone can’t deal with Beijing, so the US support would help Hanoi modernize its navy and coast guard. The development of good relations with the US would also help Vietnam get stronger to further protect its offshore oil and shore reserves in the South China Sea.

Another reason for the strengthening of the US-Vietnam relationship was Hanoi hosting the second US-North Korea Summit in February 2019, due to its amicable ties with the US as well as North Korea.

Vietnam’s efforts in working tirelessly as the ASEAN Chair and in combating COVID-19 have been applauded by countries in Southeast Asia, as well as by Japan, South Korea, the US and Russia.

Vietnam’s close relations with Australia and Japan are beneficial to the US, as Australia and Japan are in a security alliance with the US, and building closer ties with the US alliance partners means building stronger relations with America itself.

India has very good relations with Japan and the US and has been building better relations with Australia as well.

Moreover, India is a major player in the Indo-Pacific and an active member of the Quad, which means that Vietnam’s relations with India also benefit its relations with the US.

Also, Vietnam’s relations with these countries enable it to build a ‘networked security architecture of regional powers’, which would help defend sovereignty, freedom of coercion and freedom of navigation in the region.

Vietnam benefits further as these countries have a shared problematic security relationship with China, which strengthens Vietnam’s list of friends against China.

On 20 March 2020, a teleconference was held among some countries of the Indo-Pacific on COVID-19, which was organized by the US.

The participating countries were India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam, and the objective of this meeting was to take stock check of their domestic situations and national responses to the pandemic and find different ways to cooperate in these times of distress.

The interesting part about this meeting is that all four Quad members were participating, along with the ASEAN Chair Vietnam, which was invited to participate by the US.

This meeting was a step forward in the possible formation of the US-led ‘Quad plus Vietnam axis’ approach to South Asia, which would help strengthen the multilateral cooperation among Quad countries and Vietnam while dealing with the maritime security situation in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea.

(The writer is is a Ph.D candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Currently, she is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Tokyo, Japan)

(Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), Nepal’s independent think tank, and Khabarhub — Nepal’s popular news portal — have joined hands to disseminate NIICE research articles from Nepal)