Why the United States and Vietnam Urgently Need to Deepen Ties

12/09/2015
"Beijing is increasingly demonstrating to Hanoi that it aspires to regional hegemony and will trample the rights of any country that stands in its way..."
But China’s latest provocation presents an opportunity to overcome these dynamics. Beijing is increasingly demonstrating to Hanoi that it aspires to regional hegemony and will trample the rights of any country that stands in its way, thereby providing a powerful argument to those seeking deeper U.S.-Vietnamese ties.
Vietnam’s pro-U.S. faction should immediately push to grant the United States greater access to Vietnamese military facilities. Vietnam can retain control of them, but it should grant American forces rotational access and allow them to build new infrastructure and pre-position equipment. Washington will be able to project power into the South China Sea more easily and Beijing will be deterred from harassing Hanoi. Vietnam should also grant the U.S. Navy more port visits (currently limited to one per year) and provide access to its most strategically important deep-water port, Cam Ranh Bay.
On the economic front, Hanoi should continue to implement the reforms called for by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the free-trade agreement currently being negotiated among twelve Pacific Rim countries. By joining the TPP, Vietnam can reduce its economic dependence on China, thereby affording it greater freedom to pursue its own national interests even when they conflict with China’s. Finally, Vietnam must improve its human rights to foster stronger ties with the United States.
Washington, meanwhile, must reciprocate. First, even after slightly easing its ban on lethal-arms sales to Vietnam, the United States has been slow to shore up that country’s military capabilities due to human-rights concerns. The United States should continue to push Vietnam to improve its human-rights record, while making available to Hanoi maritime surveillance and other naval technologies, which do not threaten the Vietnamese people. Second, President Obama should make the South China Sea and China’s mistreatment of Vietnam central talking points during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s upcoming Washington visit, thereby signaling to Vietnam that the United States takes these aggressions against Vietnam seriously and is not shy about confronting China. Third, the United States should integrate Vietnam deeper into its other regional security relationships, including by encouraging it to co-develop weapons, inviting it to participate in multilateral military exercises and to conduct joint naval patrols, and incentivizing it to buy U.S., European and Japanese arms. Easing Vietnam away from Russian military technology (Moscow is currently Hanoi’s main arms supplier) would also bolster Vietnam’s interoperability with the United States and its allies and increase those countries’ military contacts. Fourth, the United States must conclude the TPP soon, which will benefit the United States and Vietnam, both strategically and economically.    
Hanoi can become one of Washington’s best partners to counter Beijing’s rise. Vietnam abuts the South China Sea, and it borders China. It has the world’s fourteenth-largest population, thirteenth-largest active-duty military force, and as a proportion of GDP, Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s second-largest defense spender. The country’s economy is projected to become the world’s seventeenth largest in ten years. And Vietnam would be a strong military partner for the United States, having often successfully confronted bigger and better-armed foes.
The United States and Vietnam must elevate their relationship. Doing so will signal that the Washington remains committed to countering a rising China at a time when regional countries are hedging, uncertain of whether the United States has what it takes to stand up to Beijing’s aggression. A strong U.S.-Vietnam partnership may also help to slow Chinese expansionism by demonstrating how counterproductive its behavior is—even driving former foes to ally against it.
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