pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Challenges and opportunities for U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation

Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 36-42

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 [email protected].

Chapter Excerpt

U.S.-Vietnam relations have improved over the past 25 years with the removal of the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam, increased diplomatic visits between Hanoi and Washington, and expanded bilateral maritime assistance. Meanwhile, Sino-Vietnamese relations are increasingly strained over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea — a shared security concern with the United States. There is potential for expanding strategic engagement between the United States and Vietnam in the coming decades, however, an expanded security partnership has three main obstacles that need to be addressed.

First, despite the current alignment of interests, the United States and Vietnam are not necessarily ‘natural allies.’ The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state with a record of human rights violations — this poses a potential barrier to the congressional approval necessary to significantly expand U.S. security assistance. Second, while Hanoi attempts to defend its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, the internal calculus of its response inevitably includes Vietnam’s geographic proximity to and economic dependence on China. This may severely limit its resolve to counter China. Third, Vietnam historically held a “Three Nos” security policy: no alliances, no forward basing in Vietnam, and no aligning with a second country against a third. This is notwithstanding its 2019 Defense White Paper, in which Vietnam expresses openness to participating in secu- rity and defense mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam’s nonalignment stance and historical emphasis on self-reliance raises doubts about a stronger partnership with the United States. In advancing the United States’ free and open Indo-Pa- cific (FOIP) strategy, Washington must assess how it intends to move the security relationship with Hanoi forward in light of human rights concerns, Vietnam’s relationship with China, and Vietnam’s nonalignment policy.

This paper analyzes these three obstacles to expanding U.S. security cooperation with Vietnam and explores Vietnam’s perspective on each of these topics. For every American restraint, there is a corresponding Vietnamese restraint that limits how fast and how far the bilateral defense relationship can grow. The paper concludes with recommendations for strengthening U.S.-Vietnam security relations by promoting mutual security interests and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

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Laura Abbott is a Security Cooperation Officer in the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan. She received an MA in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in 2018 and an MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford University in 2012. Previously, she taught Arabic and Mandarin Chinese at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Her research interests include defense cooperation, counterterrorism, and U.S. foreign policy.

Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang enter conduct bi-lateral discussions at the Vietnam Ministry of Defense, Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2021. Source: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley