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Vietnam-United States In Quest Of Strategic Partnership

Paper No. 5968                               Dated 14-Jul-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China’s hegemonistic belligerence and aggressive brinkmanship postures on its contentious claims to the maritime expanses of the Western Pacific involving Japan, Philippines and Vietnam have seemingly impelled Vietnam and the United States in the quest of a strategic partnership.

The United States as the nett provider of security in the Indo Pacific region cannot be oblivious to Vietnam’s status as the “pivotal state” in South East Asia and the region. The United States is conscious of the missing link of Vietnam in the American strategic architecture for both its strategic pivot to Asia and in particular to the Western Pacific which incorporates the globally strategic South China Sea under military siege by China’s construction of ‘artificial islands’ to consolidate its control of the South China Sea.

Vietnam too while attempting not to ruffle China as its most powerful contiguous neighbour is faced with the stark choice of ending-up as a ‘tributary state’ of China or seek the countervailing power of the United States.

Reflective of the convergent strategic concerns of both Vietnam and the United States on China’s unrestrained belligerence in the Western Pacific and in a quest for a strategic partnership, whose first tentative steps emerged recently was the visit of Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington from July 10-16 2015.

Significantly, this is the first ever visit of any Vietnamese Party Chief to the United States. It is more significant in that the Vietnam Party Chief holds no governmental position but is virtually the apex political leader who calls all the political and strategic shots in Vietnam. That with no position of power in the Government, yet received for discussions in the Oval Office of the White House by President Obama is an eloquent proof of the significance that the United States now attaches to its diplomatic moves for a strategically proximate relationship with Vietnam. It is a strategic reach-out by the United State to Vietnam.

Obviously, discussions between President Obama and Vietnam Party Chief focused on defence and security issues and specifically on the security environment in the South China Sea, crucial for Vietnam and the United States and its allies in East Asia. China would not have missed the strategic significance of this top level meeting.

The following agreements signed between Vietnam and United States in this connection need to be recalled:

  • Comprehensive Partnership Agreement 2013
  • Joint Vision Statement on Defence Relations 2015 signed last month during visit of US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter.

These need to be viewed as the incremental steps towards an inevitable Strategic Partnership emerging as China shows no inclinations to downgrade its belligerence.

Reinforcing the United States quest for a more substantial strategic relationship with Vietnam were the recent flurry of visits to Hanoi of top level US dignitaries indicative of exploring a more comprehensive partnership.

In the defence and security field today the United States and Vietnam have moved closer in terms of naval cooperation and supply of non-lethal military equipment.

Sceptical strategic analysts have reacted that too much significance should not be read in this visit of Vietnam Party Chief to Washington because of two reasons. Firstly, that both The Vietnam Party Chief and the US President have just about a year or so to lay down office. Secondly, two impediments still need to be sorted out regarding the United States not lifting fully its ban on arms exports to Vietnam and Vietnam not yet having acceded to US preferential access to Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ran Bay naval facilities.

It needs to be pointed out that the strategic convergences emerging between United States and Vietnam are driven by respective national security interests and not personality driven. As regards the full lifting of the US arms exports ban, one sees that as inevitable. It’s time has come.

  Concluding, two observations need to be made, as follows:

  • To place on record the statement of US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and a former US Deputy National Security Adviser, in this connection, who asserted that: “The relationship with Vietnam has moved to a very different plane and part of that has actually been energised by Chinese actions.”
  • Re-emphasise that for the inevitable emergence of a US-Vietnam Strategic Partnership, both the United States and Vietnam have to dispense with their respective “China Hedging” strategies.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at drsubhashkapila.007@gmail.com)

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