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Noise and Signal: Pursuing Common Objectives to Optimize Security Cooperation Between the United States and Vietnam

Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 52-56

Volume Overview

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.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email maritime@pacforum.org.

Chapter Excerpt

The United States has explicitly identified China as a great power competitor in the 2017 National Security Strategy, pointing to Beijing’s global influence and attempts to deny the United States access to “critical commercial zones,” including in the South China Sea. Vietnam is among several countries that lay claim to disputed territories and maritime zones in the South China Sea and has been involved in confrontations with China.

The United States and Vietnam have clear reasons to enhance bilateral and multilateral cooperation to counter Chinese encroachments in Southeast Asia. They have indeed improved their relations in the past 25 years. Since the former adversaries normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, they have become significant trading partners, with two-way commercial exchanges valued at an estimated US $81.3 billion in 2019. While the United States and Vietnam have made impressive gains in advancing diplomatic and economic partnerships, their military cooperation remains limited. Al- though two U.S. aircraft carriers have visited Vietnam in recent years and the Vietnam People’s Navy has participated in the past two Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercises, the extent of their military-to-military relations largely ends there. The reality remains that, as it is for many other countries in the Indo-Pacific, China is a top trading partner of Vietnam. Hanoi is cautious of military operations, including cooperation with third-party states, which can be interpreted as targeting China.

Given the geopolitical sensitivities, what can the United States and Vietnam do to improve their military interoperability and capabilities while considering Hanoi’s economic relations with Beijing? While minimizing the noise that typically accompanies large-scale combined military exercises, the two countries should pursue other means of high-impact security cooperation, including arms transfers and training programs, and in addressing less sensitive nontraditional security threats such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), and cybersecurity. By improving military relations in these various areas, the United States and Vietnam can still demonstrate mutual resolve to defend freedom of the seas and international law in the South China Sea and to maintain a free, open, inclusive, and rules-based region at large.

This paper first describes the current world order in the context of the relationship between the United States and China, refuting the comparison to the Cold War of the 20th century. Then it explains the balancing act that many Indo-Pacific countries are maintaining between the United States and China, due to the interconnected nature of the current global society. Finally, the paper delves into the progress made thus far in the U.S.-Vietnam military-to-military relationship and explores future areas of cooperation.

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Ki Suh Jung is a Foreign Area Officer in the United States Navy specializing in the Indo-Pacific region. Previously, he was an Asia-Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, Military Fellow at the College of William & Mary’s Project on International Peace and Security, and James A. Kelly Korea Research Fellow at Pacific Forum. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics and government from Dartmouth College.


Photo: USS Carl Vinson arrives in Da Nang for first aircraft carrier port visit to Vietnam in more than 40 years, March 5, 2018. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Devin M. Monroe