By The Hanoist
Fifteen years after normalizing diplomatic relations, military cooperation between the United States and Vietnam is evolving bit by bit.
Both sides would like to counter China's military buildup and historic desire to dominate the region - including the strategic South China Sea where a quarter of the world's trade transits and where Vietnam, China and other countries contest two island chains believed to contain rich mineral deposits.
While US motives are relatively clear - to deepen contacts with the Vietnamese military and establish areas of cooperation - the Hanoi side is often tied up in knots on how and whether to partner strategically with Washington, its former war adversary.
On one hand Vietnam enjoys high-level attention from the US. In October 2008, the two countries initiated an annual security meeting held at the assistant secretary-vice minister level. Referred to officially as "political-military talks" by the US, Vietnamese diplomats advertise the event as a "strategic dialogue", referred to locally as doi thoai chien luoc.
According to a diplomat in attendance, Ambassador Le Cong Phung made the first public announcement of the dialogue while speaking at a Vietnamese embassy function in Washington a month prior, to the surprise of some American guests.
But there are also Vietnamese concerns over the appearance of too close a military relationship. Since 2003, American warships have docked in Vietnam to conduct a range of military-diplomatic exchanges. While welcoming these highly symbolic visits by the US Navy, Vietnam initially limited port calls to one a year and ensured that the Chinese navy enjoyed equal docking rights.
The desire to placate China is reflected in a gamut of policies, from how activities with the US are disclosed in the state-controlled media, to the habit of sending high-level delegations to China coincident with any high-level visit to the US.
In March, a US naval supply ship quietly spent 16 days at Vietnam's newly completed Van Phong port located in strategic Cam Ranh Bay. This famed deep-water harbor was originally built by the Americans during the Vietnam War and after the communist takeover became a key base for the Soviet Union's Pacific Fleet. The recent port call by the USNS Richard E Byrd was not publicly announced, but the purpose of the visit was supposedly for repairs and resupply under a new comprehensive agreement for logistical support.
In December 2009, General Phung Quang Thanh became just the second post-war Vietnamese Minister of Defense to visit Washington. True to form, senior Defense Ministry delegations went to China before and after General Thanh's US visit. This deference to Beijing is reflected in a recent Hanoi white paper on defense policy where territorial disputes with its northern neighbor China are downplayed.
Overall, warming US-Vietnam ties have generated actual and promised results. Vietnam has been invited to observe US military exercises with regional allies, including Thailand. There is also discussion of joint search and rescue operations off Vietnam's coast and of the US training Vietnamese peacekeepers for international United Nations-led missions.
Vietnamese staff officers have also been offered participation in International Military and Education Training (IMET), the American program for developing ties with future military leaders. While none of the exchanges is particularly significant in isolation, each activity represents further cooperation between Hanoi and Washington and facilitates an active US naval presence in the South China Sea.
Friend or friendemy?
Although relations with the US have advanced on many fronts, there is nevertheless a deep ambivalence in Hanoi on proceeding further. And it is just not about sensitivity to China's feelings. Many in Vietnam's leadership dread "peaceful evolution," code for closer ties to the US unleashing forces of political liberalization that the ruling communist party cannot control.
This paranoia is manifested in various ways. Earlier this month, the Vietnamese government refused to grant a visa to US congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a senior member on the House Armed Services Committee and staunch human rights defender. According to a statement by Sanchez, Vietnam was worried she would highlight the government's well-chronicled and ongoing rights abuses.
The suspicions are sometimes personal. In the fall of 2008, Hanoi would not allow the current US military attache to serve at the US embassy because of his ancestry. Born in Vietnam, Colonel Patrick Reardon was adopted by an American family as a toddler. Vietnamese authorities are known to remain suspicious of overseas Vietnamese, particularly those with political influence.
The deep-seated paranoia also affects decision-making at the highest level. Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh's trip to the US last December was reportedly postponed twice. According to a Vietnamese source, there were differences in the party politburo over the goals of the visit.
While the defense minister is seen as pro-Western, others within the communist leadership - such as first deputy Defense Minister General Nguyen Chi Vinh - rely on Beijing as a political hedge and are wary of closer ties with the US. The conflicting worldview is reflected in a popular saying now making the rounds in Vietnam: "Too close to China and lose the country. Too close to America and lose the party."
Such is the dilemma in which Vietnam's communist leaders now find themselves. Who knows what the captains and colonels of the People's Army of Vietnam might learn when they attend US staff colleges? While there is momentum for increased US-Vietnam military cooperation, expect ties to cycle hot and cold.