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U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement and Hanoi’s Dilemma

13:35 03/07/2012
Sailors aboard the USS Vandegrift

The importance of the Asia-Pacific region in U.S. foreign policy has risen sharply this summer. In early June, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paid an official visit to Vietnam. He said that the focus of bilateral cooperation should be on the problems of the South China Sea and on creating conditions for the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes and ensuring freedom of navigation. In turn, his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh asked him about the possibility of lifting the embargo on American arms supplies to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Experts have paid particular attention to the use by the United States of the naval base in Cam Ranh Bay. Washington leased it before the end of the Second Indochina War. After the signing of the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance treaty in 1978, the Soviet Union obtained the right to use the base, but Russia shut it down in 2002. This has less to do with the temporary improvement of relations with the United States than with the signing of a major treaty with China on July 16, 2001. During his visit to the Cam Ranh base, Panetta said that access of U.S. warships to this facility is a key component of U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The U.S. media began to report that the United States could lease the base again.

U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement is based on a mutual desire to counterbalance China’s power in the region. Bilateral relations started to improve after former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Hanoi on July 11, 1995 when the Taiwan missile crisis reached its peak in the middle of the 1990s. In early 2010 the two countries drew even closer together. On October 29, 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Hanoi that it is possible to establish bilateral contacts in the military sphere as well. Panetta’s visit has put this issue on a practical plane. The sides are not yet going to sign an alliance treaty but plan to cooperate on individual military projects – from leasing bases to arms supplies.

The U.S.-Vietnamese partnership is becoming particularly important in the context of the conflict in the South China Sea. In 1974 China established control over the Paracel Islands, but Vietnam did not recognize this move, considering these islands to be its sovereign territory. In March 2010 China proclaimed the sea to be its sphere of interest. The Vietnamese public responded with massive anti-Chinese demonstrations. In May 2011 there was an incident involving border patrol ships of the two countries. Both staged a series of demonstrative war games.

Partnership with Vietnam is part of the updated U.S. strategy to contain China. The Clinton administration elaborated a China policy in 1994, and the Obama administration has been implementing an updated version of it since the middle of 2010. The Democrats have revived the military-political bloc ANZUS, which had been mothballed since 1987. They also signed an agreement with Singapore on the construction of a naval base in the Strait of Malacca and upgraded military partnership with India. On July 22, 2010, Hillary Clinton announced Washington’s support for the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Since that time the White House has supported Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with China. For the United States, Vietnam is a potential partner or even an ally capable of creating tension on China’s southern borders.

The situation is different for Vietnam. While rapprochement with the United States can help Vietnam to counterbalance China’s influence, a U.S.-Vietnamese alliance poses some difficulties for Hanoi.

First, Vietnam will encounter Chinese resistance. For the past 20 years, Beijing has avoided sharp moves towards its southern neighbor, but the creation of an American base in the Cam Ranh Bay or the appearance of American military instructors in Vietnam could create a threat to China’s southern borders. Beijing is unlikely to leave such a move unanswered. One response could be to intensify cooperation with Hanoi’s regional rivals – Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia.

Second, stronger cooperation with Washington is changing Vietnam’s status in Southeast Asia. Since the mid-1970s, Southeast Asian countries, including China, viewed Vietnam as a regional power with independent military capability. Now Hanoi may become a rank-and-file U.S. ally like the Philippines or Brunei. Hanoi’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy will be called into doubt.

Third, U.S.-Vietnamese partnership will change Hanoi’s status in ASEAN. The founding principle of the Bangkok Declaration is to promote peace and stability in the region by following the principles of the UN Charter. The declaration on a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality in Southeast Asia highlighted ASEAN’s commitment to neutrality. The Manila Declaration urged all conflicting parties to settle their disputes in the South China Sea exclusively by peaceful means. Vietnam’s military partnership with the United States will change this. Hanoi will be involving an outside power in inter-regional conflicts.

The Vietnamese elite has been split on this issue for the past 20 years. One camp advocated strengthening integration in ASEAN and closer relations with China. The other urged cooperation with the United States as a means to restrain the growing power of China. The second camp recently prevailed. Now the question is - will Vietnam manage to preserve its status as a regional power capable of pursuing a policy independent of the great powers? This question remains unanswered for the time being.

U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement is narrowing Russia’s resources and opportunities in Asia. Since 2001 Moscow has built its Asian policy on the foundation of strategic partnership with Beijing. At the same time, Russia has been seeking alternative partners in the Pacific, primarily in Southeast Asia. U.S.-Vietnamese rapprochement has confronted Moscow with an unpleasant choice between China and ASEAN. Hanoi is starting to view Russia as China’s steadfast ally.

This change poses a risk to the traditional friendship between Russia and Vietnam and the declarations on Russia’s partnership with ASEAN signed in the middle 2000s. Russia’s policy in the Pacific may be reduced to regular consultations with Beijing.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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