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Next Steps in the U.S.-Vietnam Relationship

June 03, 2015

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After this week’s Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, which featured the U.S.-China war of words that has come to characterize the security meeting, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter traveled on to Vietnam to meet with Hanoi’s defense minister. Carter visited Vietnam’s Naval Command and the city of Haiphong, becoming the first U.S. Defense Secretary to do so. Haiphong harbor famously---or infamously---was mined by the U.S., in 1972, during the Vietnam War.

Given China’s threats this past week to establish an air defense zone in the South China Sea, as well as Vietnam’s broader concerns about Beijing’s regional strategy, it is almost certain that the U.S.-Vietnam relationship will grow closer by the end of Obama’s presidency. Concerns in Congress about Hanoi’s poor human rights record---Hanoi’s record has actually worsened in the past five years, according to Freedom House---have not stopped Congress from being generally supportive of closer U.S.-Vietnam ties. (I have served as a consultant for Freedom House’s Freedom in the World chapters on Southeast Asia.) According to a recent Associated Press report, “Rep. Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), has authored a bill, the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2015, that would, if enacted, cap financial assistance to Vietnam at fiscal-year 2014 levels, require that easing the prohibition on selling military equipment to Vietnam happen only if steps are taken to improve human rights, and mandate that the U.S. try to overcome the jamming of Radio Free Asia.” But the bill is unlikely to pass. And Senator John McCain is reportedly planning to introduce legislation in the Senate that would further remove restrictions on arms sales to Hanoi.

Building on the Secretary of Defense’s visit to Vietnam, the two countries should take several steps to further entrench the bilateral relationship. These should include:

Integrating Vietnamese Forces into Annual U.S.-Philippines Joint Exercises

The U.S.-Philippines Balikatan joint exercises have grown in size in recent years, as Manila and Washington have become more concerned about China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea. In addition, Manila and Hanoi, which had little history of close strategic ties, have in the past five years begun building a military and strategic relationship. The two countries formally signed a statement of strategic partnership earlier this year.

The Obama administration already has promised to start conducting military exercises with Vietnam, and it should broaden those exercises to make them U.S.-Vietnam-Philippines maneuvers. Such a step would help improve the three forces’ interoperability, and also would help solidify Manila’s ties to Hanoi.

Boosting Arms Sales

The Obama administration should push for the full removal of restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam. As I wrote in a working paper on the pivot in Southeast Asia, the administration could set up an interagency working group to approve the first year or two years of arms sales to Vietnam, monitoring the sales to make sure that the weapons are not being used against Vietnamese civilians. If they were used against Vietnamese civilians, the arms sales could be stopped.

Although Vietnam is a highly repressive, one-party state, its military is actually far more professional, and less abusive, than those of many other nations in Southeast Asia. The armed forces are under civilian control, unlike those of neighboring nations like Thailand and Myanmar. In addition, Vietnam offers such significant strategic advantages for the United States (unlike, say, Myanmar) that, on balance, arms sales to Vietnam are worth the possibility that the sales will, in some way, be helping to support an authoritarian government.

Building Upon the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership

The United States should build upon its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam. In building closer ties, the U.S. government should not only expand the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam but also expand access for American naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay and increase the number of training programs for senior Vietnamese officers.

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