During President Obama’s tenure, the US and Vietnam signed ‘Comprehensive Partnership Agreement’ and lifted the ban on sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Since then bilateral relations have continued to grow. President Trump too has followed his predecessor and economic relations are on an ascendency; the bilateral trade touched US$ 60 billion in 2018 and US exports to Vietnam surged by nearly 46 per cent. However, President Trump has consistently voiced concern on US’ trade imbalance with many Asian countries as also expressed reservations about certain trade practices including Vietnam. Hanoi has come under scrutiny over issues concerning intellectual property rights, lack of transparency in doing business, food safety norms, and the human rights issue in Vietnam.
Amidst the ongoing US-China trade war, China is apprehensive that many of its manufacturing companies may relocate factories to Vietnam , and the latter might emerge to be the next ‘world factory’ or the manufacturing hub. In that scenario, Vietnam will prove to be the greatest beneficiary of the US-China trade war. However, in this regard, a major setback was recorded when President Trump, as one of his very initial decisions after coming to power, withdrew from the crucial free trade agreement in the Asia- Pacific region, namely the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was ushered in by the Obama Administration. This agreement was extremely crucial for the region, and Vietnam was hoping to strengthen its emerging economic ties with the US as well as gain preferential access to the US markets.
Another major highlight of the US-Vietnam relationship is burgeoning security cooperation. Both sides are anxious about China’s rapid military modernization, growing ‘assertiveness’ and reclamation-weaponisation in the South China Sea. The US is visibly alarmed and has decided to resolutely challenge the Chinese aggressive military posturing through near constant naval presence in the South China Sea. It has undertaken nine Freedom of Navigation Operation Patrols in the South China Sea; the last one was by USS McCampbell on 7 January, 2019.
The year 2018 was significant for US-Vietnam security relations on at least three counts. First, the US Navy Aircraft Carrier USS Carl Vinson made a landmark port call in Vietnam since the end of US-Vietnam War in 1975. Daniel Kritenbrink, the US Ambassador to Vietnam had remarked, “an enormously significant milestone in bilateral relations and demonstrated US support for a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam,”
Second, Vietnam participated in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises. This was the first time that Vietnam was invited to participate in a US-led multilateral exercise, clearly signaling the growing security relationship between the two countries. It was also a nudge for Vietnam to upgrade its navy and make it more combat-ready by training with the US Navy, particularly on issues that are critical for securing the safety of sea lanes. The US had not invited China for this exercise citing reason of its increasing militarization in the South China Sea. It is worth mentioning that China had participated in the two earlier iterations of the RIMPAC. This amply proves that the Trump administration is ready to allow Vietnam a greater role in the region as it shares with Hanoi common concerns over China’s increasing southward push, fuelled by the ‘China Dream’ in the Asian Century.
Third, US Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Shriver visited Vietnam thrice and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis paid a crucial visit to Vietnam in October. It was his second trip to Vietnam in less than a year.
High-level US visits to Vietnam have continued in 2019 clearly signifying the role Vietnam can play in the US’ National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy which identifies the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater. Last month, Philip Davidson, the Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command met with three important leaders of the Vietnamese military establishment; Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich; Deputy Defense Minister; and Chief of the General Staff of Vietnam People’s Army Phan Van Giang. They discussed ways and means of strengthening their comprehensive partnership in general and bilateral defense cooperation in particular. All these developments prove that Vietnam is emerging to be a crucial partner in US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s ties with Russia, its major defence partner and supplier of military hardware, continue to strengthen. The latter has supplied Kilo- Class submarines and T-90s/SK Main Battle Tanks (MBTs); also, technology transfers from Russia to Vietnam have given fillip to the indigenous arms production capability particularly the KCT 15 anti- submarine missiles. This is despite the fact that the US usually censures and sanctions countries buying military equipments from Russia.
To conclude, the US-Vietnam relationship is on an upward swing and both partners are narrowing the mutual distrust of the Cold War days. However, Vietnam is yet to learn in entirety the American way of doing business, particularly in the economic and defense sectors.
Dr Tilottama Mukherjee is Assistant Professor and Head of the Department, Department of Political Science, Syamaprasad College,Kolkata.