Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 57-63
Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.-Vietnam Next-Generation Leaders Initiative. With backgrounds in academia, public policy, military and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Between October 2020 and April 2021, cohort members engaged with senior experts and practitioners as they developed research papers addressing various aspects of the bilateral relationship.
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On July 11, 2020, the United States and Vietnam celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations. Since the rapprochement in 1995, their partnership has substantially developed and continues to grow. Washington has committed to helping realize a strong and independent Vietnam and a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Hanoi welcomed Washington’s expression of support, appreciating the value of deeper and stronger ties between the two. China sees it differently. Five days after the 25th anniversary commemoration, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, claimed that U.S.-Vietnam cooperation is fragile, and is based on containing China. The newspaper warned that Vietnam would be left in a precarious situation on the South China Sea issue if the balance between China and the United States breaks.
Maritime security in the South China Sea is undoubtedly one of the main concerns shared by the United States and Vietnam. Both Washington and Hanoi have national interests at stake in the South China Sea disputes. For the former, it is about maintaining its primacy in the region and preserving freedom of the seas. For the latter, it is about national security related to territorial integrity and economic development. China is the common challenge to U.S. and Vietnamese national interests in the South China Sea. The more aggressive China becomes, the closer the relationship is between the United States and Vietnam. Indeed, after China deployed the Hai-Yan 981 oil rig into the waters of Vietnam in 2014, Vietnamese ports welcomed two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and the number of high-level talks between defense officials from both countries has concomitantly increased.
While it is reasonable to claim that the China factor constitutes a strong force driving the United States and Vietnam closer together, this paper argues that pursuing cooperation around shared legal norms and ideas to advance maritime security in the South China Sea will be a more proactive approach to deepening the U.S.-Vietnam partnership. The paper is divided into two parts. The first part briefly outlines the progress in U.S.-Vietnam relations vis-à-vis maritime security. It proves that while the China factor is critical, it is not (and should not) be the only reason for closer cooperation between Washington and Hanoi on the South China Sea issue. There is the element of preserving international rules and norms — a clear overlap in the two countries’ national interests — that also plays a significant role. The second part of the paper explains the rationale behind deepening U.S.-Vietnam relations based on legal norms.
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Pham Ngoc Minh Trang is a lecturer at Faculty of International Relations, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh city. She teaches international law and law of the sea. Her research focuses include South China sea disputes, and ASEAN. She was a research fellow at the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in 2015, and at New York University in 2019.
Photo: The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) arrives in Vietnam, March 5, 2020. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Dylan Lavin