U.S. Touts Military Ties With Vietnam Amid China Sea Tension

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A Vietnamese military band performed a rousing Star Spangled Banner as U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived Monday for talks at the defense ministry in Hanoi.

Once inconceivable, such amicable displays between the former wartime adversaries are increasingly common as Vietnam frets over its Communist neighbor China.

Carter and his counterpart, Vietnam Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, later signed a “joint vision statement” pledging to expand defense trade -- including possible co-production -- and collaborate on maritime security.

“We’re both committed to deepening our defense relationship,” Carter said following the ceremony. “We had a very in-depth discussion that extended well over an hour and a half because there’s so much we’re doing together.”

Carter’s Vietnam stop, midway through a 10-day Asian swing, was a signal to China that its South China Sea island-building campaign is alienating its neighbors. But the first visit to Hanoi by a U.S. defense secretary since 2012 was also a reminder of the limits of the burgeoning U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

The new vision statement, which builds on an earlier 2011 accord, is legally non-binding. New U.S. arms sales have been slow to develop since the Obama administration last fall partially lifted a long-standing ban on military sales to Vietnam. Accustomed to buying from Russia, the Vietnamese have been baffled by Pentagon procedures.

In Washington, expanded arms sales are opposed by Human Rights Watch, which says Vietnam’s rights record “remains weak in all key areas.”

China Reliance

Some older members of the Vietnamese Politburo, who recall the U.S. as the enemy, are skeptical of a complete turnabout. And while Vietnam is wary of Chinese domination, China remains its top trading partner and an important source of capital.

“This is a piece of complex systems engineering,” said Dean Cheng, an Asian affairs specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “There are many, many moving parts, not just China and the U.S.,” he said. “The whole area is very much in flux.”

The U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement, 20 years after the normalization of relations, is occurring against the legacy of a long and bitter war. Carter alluded to the countries’ “shared past” as he returned to Vietnam a diary and belt taken from a dead Viet Cong guerrilla by an American in the early 1970s.

One day earlier, it was difficult to escape the past. As the Pentagon chief visited Vietnam’s naval headquarters in Haiphong, a giant portrait of the country’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh shadowed his arrival. The city is best known in the U.S. for President Richard Nixon’s 1972 decision to order the mining of Haiphong’s harbor in a controversial escalation of the conflict.

Oil Rig

With 42 percent of Vietnamese no more than 24 years old, wartime memories are overshadowed by contemporary worries about China. Relations between the neighbors plummeted last year after a Chinese oil rig appeared in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast.

As Vietnamese patrol boats played a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese rig’s escort vessels, protesters attacked and burned factories in Vietnam mostly owned by Taiwanese companies.

One year later, the persistence of rival territorial claims and China’s recent decision to move two mobile artillery pieces to a reef within range of Vietnamese offshore installations has some analysts jittery.

‘Unmanaged Escalation’

“There’s a lot of distrust there,” said Alex Neill, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “In the South China Sea there’s a far greater chance of unmanaged escalation between China and Vietnam, and the Philippines, rather than the United States and China.”

To avoid transforming the South China Sea into a Sino-U.S. showdown, the U.S. is seeking to build what officials call a “regional architecture” with military and economic dimensions. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, says he is “very excited” about prospects for greater cooperation with Vietnam’s navy.

Some U.S. vessels already make pit stops in Vietnamese ports. The USS Fort Worth, a littoral combat ship that encountered a Chinese naval vessel last month in the South China Sea, visited Da Nang in April.

During his visit, Carter announced the U.S. is providing Vietnam $18 million to help it buy two Metal Shark offshore patrol boats.

‘Throwing Elbows’

President Barack Obama reinforced the message on Monday in Washington. He told a group of youth leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who are concluding U.S.- sponsored fellowships, that China must observe the same rules of conduct that have helped it grow into a world power. “What has allowed all of Asia to prosper over the last two, three decades, including China, is there’s been relative peace and stability, freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce,” Obama said. China shouldn’t try to stake out territory “based just on throwing elbows,” he said. “If in fact their claims are legitimate, then they’ll be recognized.”

Weapons Sales

U.S. officials say the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is also essential. The trade deal, which would grant countries such as Vietnam broader access to the U.S. market, would help its garment industry move beyond simple cut-and-sew operations to higher value-added manufacturing.

Still, Vietnam’s $90 billion in two-way trade with China is more than double its annual cross-border commerce with the U.S., and more than 10 percent of foreign investment in Vietnam comes from Chinese companies.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he plans to push to allow the sales of light arms and other weapons. And the Arizona Republican made no secret of his motivation.

“We’d like to see them have greater capability,” he said, “particularly with weapons that are defensive in nature -- and could be used in the event of a crisis between Vietnam and China.”

For more, read this QuickTake: Territorial Disputes