When Dang Duc Toai completed the Aviation Leadership Programme at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi last month, he became a trailblazer among pilots from his native Vietnam.
Dang, a captain in the Vietnam People’s Air Force, was the first of his countrymen to graduate from the programme, through which the United States Air Force provides 52 weeks of flight training to pilots from US partner and developing countries.
Lieutenant General Steve Kwast, commander of air education and training command in Columbus, hailed Dang’s graduation on May 31 as the fruit of a partnership between the US and Vietnam that “helps ensure peace and stability in the region and in the world”.
The milestone was just the latest example of deepening military cooperation between Washington and Hanoi – once bitter enemies who are increasingly united in their mutual suspicion of China’s rising clout in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.
A better relationship with the US in security and military aspects is essential for Vietnam
Viet Phuong Nguyen, Belfer Centre
“A better relationship with the US in security and military aspects is essential for Vietnam to hedge against any possible aggression from China,” said Viet Phuong Nguyen, a research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs in Massachusetts.
In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as one of the loudest objectors to Beijing’s claims to most of the contested South China Sea – where Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have competing claims – by regularly protesting Chinese moves around the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands.
In March, Hanoi lodged a protest with Beijing after a Vietnamese fishing vessel crashed and sank after it was chased by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel in disputed waters. Months earlier, Hanoi had taken Beijing to task for installing weather stations and landing military aircraft on the Spratly Islands.
In 2014, the deployment of an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters by a Chinese state-owned company sparked weeks of violent riots across the Southeast Asian country.
Memories of historical subjugation and war with China remain raw in Vietnam. In a 2017 survey by Pew, only 10 per cent of Vietnamese said they had a favourable view of China, with which Vietnam fought a series of border conflicts before normalising ties in 1991. In the same survey, 84 per cent of respondents had a positive view of the US.
Hanoi’s growing anxieties about Chinese influence in its backyard have given it common cause with Washington’s stated agenda of ensuring the South China Sea – through which more than US$3 trillion worth of cargo passes each year – remains “free and open”.
An official at Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Hanoi saw cooperation with Washington as necessary in the context of Beijing’s growing military clout.
“The cooperation with US is like a balance helping Vietnam to have another choice to protect its rights and sovereignty, as well as its political position in international forums, especially on the issue of South China Sea conflict,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, Vietnam is still economically dependent on China, its largest trading partner, which accounts for one-fifth of the Southeast Asian nation’s trade.
China was also the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Vietnam in 2018, with total registered capital amounting to US$2.4 billion, up from US$700 million in 2011, according to the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
China is after all a rising superpower and can affect Vietnam’s interests, both economic and security, profoundly
Zhang Baohui, Lingnan University
Zhang Baohui, a political-science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Vietnam was unlikely to join the ranks of Washington’s closest partners in Asia due its reliance on its dominant neighbour.
“The reason is that while Vietnam has concerns for China, it also wants to maintain decent relations with Beijing,” Zhang said. “China is after all a rising superpower and can affect Vietnam’s interests, both economic and security, profoundly. So Vietnam will tread carefully for its relations with both Beijing and Washington.”
This economic relationship does not seem to dissuade the Trump administration, which earlier this month announced the sale of a number of surveillance drones to Vietnam, weeks after approving the sale of six patrol boats for the country’s coastguard – moves widely seen as aimed at checking Chinese influence in the South China Sea.
In 2017, the USS Carl Vinson visited the coastal Vietnamese city of Da Nang in the first stopover by a US aircraft carrier since the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975. In April, a senior US defence official said Washington hoped to arrange another aircraft carrier visit this year and make such stopovers a regular occurrence in the future.
Shortly before US President Donald Trump’s election, former president Barack Obama announced an end to a decade-long arms embargo on Vietnam, casting it as a “lingering vestige of the cold war”.
“Trump has definitely … prioritised Vietnam as a country that will help with the broader Indo-Pacific strategy, keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open, as they say, because Vietnam has the most territorial disputes of any country with China in the South China Sea,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation. “There’s a very strong China element to it, no doubt, regardless of what anyone says.”
Nevertheless, non-aligned Vietnam’s foreign policy doctrine places heavy constraints on deeper defence ties, precluding a formal alliance such as the ones Washington maintains with the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Hanoi’s “three noes” defence policy forbids its involvement in military alliances, aligning with one country against another, or hosting foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil.
“China thus does not feel very concerned by developments in Vietnam-US relations,” said Zhang from Lingnan University. “It understands that there is a limit in that relationship.”
Nguyen of the Belfer Centre said the natural choice for Hanoi was to balance its relations with major powers.
“Vietnam should not be content with better military cooperation with the US, it should strive for a true hedging strategy and balance its relations with the major players in the region,” he said.
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