US can’t sway Vietnam to act against China

Li Jiangang

The US is poised to send an aircraft carrier to the Vietnamese port of Da Nang in March, Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense revealed recently. The news came during US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recent visit to this Southeast Asian country.
Many US media outlets hailed the visit as a sign of warming US-Vietnam relations and an “ice-breaking” one after the Vietnam War. They believe Vietnam is a nation which is “increasingly emboldened to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.”
In contrast, none of the mainstream media in Vietnam hyped up Mattis’ visit, nor were their evaluations of their country’s ties with the US too effusive.
In May 2017, when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited the US, he talked about the prospect of the US sending an aircraft carrier to Vietnam with President Donald Trump. Talks continued when Vietnam’s Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich met Mattis in Washington in August. Only recently when Mattis visited Vietnam did the defense ministries of both sides agree to get this plan approved by their respective leadership.
The US media intentionally chose the timing to hype up the issue. It has been more than a year since Trump took power. Opinions on Trump’s governance are mostly negative. Many think tanks believe the US diplomatic focus in 2018 is trade and the economy, including coping with the predicament of a slew of free trade agreements and solving trade disputes. Against such a backdrop, Washington can only resort to limiting its strategic outlook.
Mattis’ high-profile tour to Southeast Asia seems to have brought in some fresh air, indicating the US’ return to the Asia-Pacific. However, the Indo-Pacific strategy that Trump relentlessly championed during the APEC leaders’ meeting in Da Nang in November remains a “strategic vision,” despite the mentions in the US 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Countries like Vietnam are familiar with US rhetoric. Especially after Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, these countries no longer hold much expectations of the US. Vietnam is clear that it is only a pawn in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
Although Mattis was given a warm welcome in Vietnam and met with Ngo Xuan Lich, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, the Vietnamese media’s indifference toward his visit shows that it was more symbolic than substantive.
In recent years, defense cooperation between the US and Vietnam did not venture beyond the rhetoric. The most effective bilateral cooperation lies in solving the lingering problems from the war, such as looking for the remains of missing service personnel, mine eradication, eliminating Agent Orange and humanitarian assistance.
Since the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2016, the country’s leadership has adopted a much more flexible and mild diplomatic approach, and keeps it at this level. Vietnam did not turn on China as the Philippines did after the South China Sea arbitration, but engaged Beijing at a working group level, senior official level and in high-level bilateral meetings.
In the past two years, there have been no major conflicts between China and Vietnam on the South China Sea issue. There was positive momentum in their relations in 2017 and achievements in Vietnam’s economic development. Obviously, Vietnam will not curry favor from the far-reaching and flip-flopping US to jeopardize the hard-won peaceful situation.
Military cooperation won’t bring Vietnam and the US too close. In recent years, Vietnam has been holding onto the path of military independence and sticks to the principle of the “three nos:” no to military alliances, no to foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, and no to alliances that are directed against third parties. Vietnam does not want to be constrained by the US in security matters.
The US will not give up trying to incite a “color revolution” in Vietnam by using the excuse of democracy and human rights. Vietnam has kept a clear mind on this and will not become a vassal of the US.
— Courtesy: GT.
[The author is an assistant research fellow of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.]

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