Vietnam values its cooperative relationship with the U.S., Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh said, as a major security summit in Brunei puts Vietnam in focus as an emerging middle power in Southeast Asia.
General Thanh told U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during their meeting today that he was “very happy to witness recently the defense and military cooperation between the two countries.”
Hagel held individual talks with defense ministers ahead of a broader gathering tomorrow of officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus China, Japan and South Korea, at a time a number of countries are vying for access to oil, gas and fish in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
That race for resources, and a broader push for influence in the region, has the bigger powers looking to shore up relationships with smaller countries. Since 2010, when the first ADMM-Plus meeting was held in Hanoi, Vietnam’s role has come to the fore under the U.S.’s strategic shift to Asia and as China expands its reach. For China, one barrier to warmer ties with Vietnam is territorial; for the U.S., it is Vietnam’s human rights record.
“Vietnam is increasingly considered a significant player in the region” given its location, developing economy and young population, said Ralf Emmers, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. That puts Vietnam in a delicate spot, he said. “The Vietnamese don’t want to come across as a tacit ally of the U.S. because they want to preserve good relations with China. They don’t want to choose.”
Hagel and senior defense officials from China were in the audience when Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned at a forum in Singapore in late May that miscalculations over territorial spats in the South China Sea could disrupt “huge” trade flows and have global consequences.
Weeks later, Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang met President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where they agreed to set up a hot-line to defuse territorial disputes and expand an agreement to jointly explore for oil in the Gulf of Tonkin. Sang then traveled to the U.S. in July, where he met President Barack Obama to discuss working to boost maritime security.
Warmer relations between Vietnam and the U.S. have “raised some eyebrows in Beijing,” said Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.
“One of the key drivers in Vietnam’s attempt to improve its relations with the U.S. is to have more options in dealing with China in the South China Sea,” he said. “What Vietnam wants is a balanced and strong relationship with both China and the U.S. in which its legitimate interests are respected by both the great powers.”
U.S. engagement with Vietnam is constrained by concerns over Vietnam’s human rights record. Last year, Dung ordered a crackdown on blogs that attacked his leadership over an economy hurt by inefficient state-owned companies, a banking system riddled with bad debt, and government corruption.
“Vietnam is not allowed to buy offensive weapons from the U.S.” because of its human rights violations, said David Koh, adjunct associate professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore. “Certainly there is a lot of ground for improvement in terms of how Vietnam treats people who have a different political opinion.”
Two-way trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has grown from about $1 billion before a bilateral trade agreement in December 2001, to $26 billion for 2012, according to figures from the U.S. government. Obama is seeking to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which includes Vietnam, this year.
Still, the U.S. and Vietnam have failed to reach a strategic partnership, first proposed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.
“There are elements in the party in Vietnam and in the military that have long ties to China and are anxious about moving too fast with the U.S.,” according to Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow and specialist on South East Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
China’s two-way trade with Vietnam grew at the fastest pace in six months in July. While China’s relationship with Vietnam has been testy at times, with Chinese vessels accused of cutting the cables of survey ships working for Vietnam in the South China Sea, their Communist Party links have helped.
“Vietnam has one advantage over the Philippines in dealing with China on the South China Sea -- it has the party-to-party connection,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “At least party leaders of both Vietnam and China still consider one another as ‘comrades.’”
China has agreed to talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea with fellow claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The Philippines in January asked the United Nations to rule on its dispute with China, which moved to take control of the Scarborough Shoal a year after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships.
Vietnam holds joint naval exercises at sea with China while engagements with the U.S. are still port-based, according to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Both China and the U.S. send combat ships to Vietnam’s military ports.
China and Vietnam have “compartmentalized” their disputes over the South China Sea, Thayer said.
The Brunei meeting follows Hagel’s stops in Malaysia and Indonesia, with plans for him to briefly visit the Philippines afterward. So far his trip has been dominated by Syria, with the U.S. concluding that Syrian forces launched a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb last week that opposition groups say killed 1,300 people.
“Even though you’re facing a severe international environment represented by the situation in Syria, the fact that you’re participating in ADMM-Plus should be appreciated by all members of Asean,” Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told Hagel at the start of their bilateral meeting in Brunei today.
Closer to home, Hagel is seeking to reassure allies that the U.S. can sustain a military and economic shift to Asia even as it faces as much as $500 billion in defense budget cuts over nine years.
Hagel told Onodera at the start of their meeting that the U.S.-Japan alliance is an “important key to our rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region.
At the first ADMM-Plus meeting in 2010, delegates agreed to cooperate on issues such as counter-terrorism, disaster management and peacekeeping operations, according to Brunei’s Defense Ministry. This week’s meetings will let ministers review progress on these priorities, the ministry said on its website.
“Those are themes that are welcomed by all the participants, no one feels threatened by that kind of cooperation,” said RSIS’s Emmers. “Ultimately the ADMM Plus is mostly about confidence-building and trust.”