Issues & Insights Vol. 22, CR1 – Getting past constraints: Deepening U.S. security relations with Vietnam and Indonesia

Executive Summary

INTRODUCTION

Pacific Forum reconvened two Track 2 dialogues with Vietnam and Indonesia in August 2022 to help identify ways the United States and its two Southeast Asian partners can work together to enhance bilateral cooperation on security issues of shared concern. Functional cooperation between Washington and its two Southeast Asian partners has considerably advanced in the past ten years, but differing strategic considerations still handicap some aspects of these relationships. The two security dialogues emphasized these findings, among other takeaways.

FINDINGS SUMMARY

In its February 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy document, the United States stressed that “collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefitted the Indo-Pacific and the world.” The 2021 U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Indonesia security dialogues had made clear that such framing would not generate broad Southeast Asian cooperation. This year’s dialogues echoed similar themes while underscoring functional cooperation as vital to the two countries’ security relations with the United States. Their strategic autonomy and agency are central to their response to threats from Beijing, and they are reluctant to align outright with the United States on China-related strategic considerations. Nevertheless, Indonesia and Vietnam are interested in working with the United States when it strengthens their strategic autonomy and ability to stand up to threats, including those from China. Two interconnected factors determine Indonesian and Vietnamese strategic thinking regarding China’s assertive behavior and willingness to cooperate with the United States on security issues. First, geography makes China an everyday presence for Hanoi and Jakarta and their economies. Second, the self-help regional security environment compels Jakarta and Hanoi to be extra cautious in dealing with Chinese assertiveness. They are not U.S. treaty-allies. Vietnamese and Indonesian interlocutors do not expect the United States to defend Vietnam and Indonesia should Beijing use force.

KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE TWO SECURITY DIALOGUES

Finding: China has specifically designed its operations in the South China Sea to avoid thresholds for escalation and response by using civilian or non-military actors to operationalize claims using tactics that fall short of kinetic armed conflict. China would perceive any response to a gray zone coercion either as “escalatory”—possibly provoking a stronger Chinese response that could result in a complete reversal of status quo of certain features—or “muted”—which could encourage Beijing to attempt more coercive maneuvers.

  • Recommendation: The United States and its partners must challenge the narrative surrounding the existence of civilian and non-military actors in the South China Sea. First, Washington should support regional partners’ efforts to identify, document, and publicize militia operations, including publishing photos and videos in open source, disseminating evidence in Track 1 forums and venues like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Second, Washington must link the behavior of China’s maritime militia and Coast Guard to its interactions with the PLAN. The United States should communicate publicly and privately that it expects the PLAN, the Coast Guard, and the maritime militia to abide by the internationally recognized standards of seamanship and communications, including the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
  • Recommendation: Washington should take three actions to address the gradual, non-kinetic nature of China’s gray zone tactics. First, it should help improve situational awareness through capacity-building efforts that enhance partners’ maritime domain awareness, such as through provisions of maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, including remote sensing tools, unmanned platforms, and coastal radar. Second, it should help address the asymmetry in capabilities by tailoring defense assistance to partners with more surface assets to maintain sustained presence and expanding maritime law enforcement capabilities through initiatives like Coast Guard ship-riding programs. Finally, the United States and its partners should thoroughly discuss potential non-kinetic tactical responses to harassment.
  • Recommendation: The United States should establish a task force within the Seventh Fleet, modeled on Task Force 59 in the Fifth Fleet, to develop and deploy unmanned and automated maritime domain awareness platforms in coordination with Vietnam and other regional partners. This could vastly improve the ability to monitor and identify Chinese gray zone actors in a persistent and affordable manner.

Finding: U.S. efforts at direct deterrence (e.g., U.S. Navy operations to defend its own freedom of navigation) in the South China Sea have been much more successful than extended deterrence (e.g., assisting Vietnam and other coastal states in the region to protect their own maritime rights and interests against Chinese coercion).

  • Recommendation: The United States should reinforce the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by clearly articulating through official documents and in meetings with China that the use of force to deny U.S. civilian or military vessels from rightful access to the South China Sea is a red line for the United States.
  • Recommendation: The United States should articulate through official documents and in meetings with regional states that changing the status quo of disputed features by using force or gray zone coercion (e.g., ejecting existing Vietnamese presence on a disputed land feature) is another U.S. red line. The United States should engage its regional partners to establish acceptable parameters for a combined response and then respond appropriately in coordination with partner countries.

Finding: In a gray zone maritime crisis involving China, Vietnam will simultaneously de-escalate by engaging Beijing and defend its interests by deploying non-military assets to assert presence or control. Coordinating with Washington to address a China-related gray zone crisis would not be a top priority for Hanoi. Meanwhile, Indonesia will resolutely respond to a gray zone crisis by safeguarding its interests and preventing a fait accompli while maintaining its strategic autonomy. Jakarta will use its diplomatic, military, and paramilitary assets to maintain the status quo. The Indonesians would prefer the United States carefully balance its engagement and avoid direct involvement in any Indonesia-China tension. Both Hanoi and Jakarta expect that their strategic space to de-escalate or arrive at an acceptable solution would be severely constrained once the United States is directly involved, and the crisis would be reframed in the context of “great power competition.”

  • Recommendation: Addressing a gray zone crisis requires coordination between Washington and the partner country directly involved. In this regard, the United States should immediately consult with partner countries about the best course of action before making any move.

Finding: Beijing is unlikely to use outright aggression against Southeast Asian states. Instead, China will continue to push the envelope in the South China Sea and elsewhere through gray zone/non-kinetic means. Absent any effective response, Beijing will achieve more fait accomplis, which are extremely difficult to roll back without the use of force.

  • Recommendation: The United States should continue to devote more resources (e.g., by sponsoring more tabletop exercises, research, and dialogues) to better understand China’s use of gray zone coercion and draft plans accordingly. The United States should also discuss potential responses to counter gray zone coercion with partners and allies.

KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE U.S.-VIETNAM SECURITY DIALOGUES

Finding: Vietnam’s policy documents regard defense cooperation, including joint exercises, with other countries as important “to improve capabilities to protect the country and address common security challenges.” However, Vietnam makes a distinction between military exercises that are aimed at developing war-fighting skills (tp trn) and military training exercises to learn or improve basic skills (din tp). Vietnam will not participate in the former with the United States, which could potentially explain Hanoi’s lack of interest in joining the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise.

  • Recommendation: When the United States invites Vietnam to join a bilateral or multilateral exercise, Washington should clarify that the purpose is to improve basic skills (din tp). In bigger exercises like the RIMPAC, U.S. invitation extended to Hanoi should stress the din tp value of the activities.

Finding: The United States sees Hanoi as a stabilizing force in the region. Vietnam has shown determination to continue the trajectory of its military modernization, which could present opportunities for the United States, not just in providing hardware, but also in deepening institutional ties, interoperability, and long-term trust. In 2021, Vietnam committed to “building a streamlined and strong Army by 2025, and a revolutionary, regular, highly-skilled and modern People’s Army by 2030,” vowing to prioritize Air Defense/Air Force Service, Navy, Signal Force, Electronic Warfare Force, Technical Reconnaissance Force, Cyber Warfare Force, and Cipher (cryptology) Force.

  • Recommendation: Washington could offer to help Hanoi realize some of the aspects of its 2030 military modernization plan, for example, by building on the successful U.S.-Vietnam deal for the transfer of three T-6 trainers by 2023, along with spare parts and a maintenance package. The U.S. should continue to probe Vietnamese willingness to purchase more T-6s with a package including simulators, maintenance, and participation in an expanded aviation leadership program. This could provide the basis for Vietnam to acquire more advanced fighter jets in the future. Helping modernize Vietnam’s military capabilities could promote mutual trust, which in turn could result in deeper bilateral cooperation. It could also help Hanoi secure its maritime zones amidst Chinese coercion and contribute to regional security free from Chinese dominance.

Finding: Vietnam is unlikely to reinvigorate its civilian nuclear power program in the near future.  Despite the high expectations surrounding the advent of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), interest in Vietnam is still not enough to push policymakers to reconsider a 2016 decision to halt Vietnam’s pursuit of nuclear energy. The view remains that Vietnam and Southeast Asia broadly have considerable alternatives to nuclear power. Nevertheless, Vietnamese experts stressed that SMRs and floating nuclear power plants are important topics for research, but any development is beyond the 10-year horizon.

  • Recommendation: The U.S. Government should provide educational opportunities for Vietnamese nuclear engineers and nuclear policy/security experts. This would ensure that U.S.-educated engineers and experts are readily available should Hanoi decide to restart its civil nuclear program. This would counter potential Chinese or Russian influence in determining the trajectory of Vietnam’s nuclear energy policy.

Finding: The U.S. and Vietnamese responses to the Itu Aba exercise conducted at the U.S. Vietnam Track 2 dialogue revealed the undercurrents in U.S. and Southeast Asian strategic thinking. First, Washington would not go to war against China to defend partner countries over small offshore territories in the South China Sea. Second, Southeast Asians’ primary consideration when dealing with Chinese provocation is the idea that when hostilities escalate, they are on their own. U.S. partners do not expect the U.S. military to fight for them should there be a conflict.

  • Recommendation: capacity-building initiatives should focus on helping partner countries obtain capabilities that allow them to maintain an active, sustained and visible presence in their own maritime zones. This means providing partner countries with surface assets like law enforcement patrol vessels that are capable of navigating their vast exclusive economic zones for longer periods and with the capacity to respond to Chinese coercion.

KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE U.S.-INDONESIA SECURITY DIALOGUES

Finding: Disagreement related to Archipelagic Sea-Lane (ASL) passage could become a long-term operational issue between Indonesia and the United States. The United States wants Indonesia to allow all navigational rights and freedoms within its archipelago as described in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indonesia, however, remains reluctant to introduce more archipelagic sea-lanes, fearing the presence of more foreign warships in its archipelagic waters.

  • Recommendation: The United States should have regular, standalone maritime security dialogues with Indonesia at the Track 1 and Track 2 levels to understand the factors that inhibit Indonesia from fully complying with the ASL provisions of the UNCLOS and help reassure Jakarta that U.S. military operations fully respect Indonesian sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the former, Indonesia’s lack of maritime domain awareness may be discouraging it from establishing additional ASLs, in which case the United States could be helpful. On the latter, regular interactions between Indonesian and U.S. maritime institutions and experts would increase trust over time, which could lead to more maritime cooperation that accommodates both U.S. preferences and Indonesian interests.

Finding: Indonesia’s growing Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, while not targeted at any specific country, could complicate assumptions about force flows, supply chains, and ally reinforcements. In this context, Indonesia could potentially close off its waters from all military forces, including the United States and its treaty allies, in the event of a crisis, for example, over Taiwan.

  • Recommendation: U.S. military planning should take into account access to Southeast Asian territorial seas, and archipelagic waters (including their airspaces) to assess the impact of potential restrictions or differing interpretations of international maritime law.
  • Recommendation: More U.S. Government-sponsored dialogues and tabletop exercises should include Indonesia and other important partner countries in Southeast Asia to help promote common understanding and appreciation of key issues that arise during crises.

Finding: Two U.S.-led frameworks, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), could assist Indonesia with its Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation capacity-building. Neither the GICNT nor the PSI creates new obligations for participating states. Instead, cooperation is voluntary, with individual members’ respective national authorities coordinating to help ensure that bad actors, including extremists, do not obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-related materials. Indonesia’s persistent refusal to join U.S.-led security institutions is a political decision, rather than an objection to their operating principles.

  • Recommendation: Washington should clearly articulate in Track 1 dialogues involving policymakers that both GICNT and PSI would allow Indonesia to remain carefully protective of its own national sovereignty and independence. The United States should also underscore the multilateral nature of these arrangements.

About this report

Pacific Forum, in collaboration with local partners, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), and the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), organized the Track 2 U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogues in August 2022. With support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), ten U.S. strategic thinkers, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials, traveled to Hanoi on August 3-5, 2022, and to Bali on August 9-11, 2022, to meet and engage with 19 counterparts from Vietnam and 14 from Indonesia. Both Track 2 dialogues included one day of panel discussion on thematic issues and one day devoted to a scenario-based exercise.The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. This is not a consensus document. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsors, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email .

Click here to download the full report

PacNet #23 – May is a major opportunity for US relations with Asia—especially economically

Despite Washington’s understandable focus on the Ukraine war, the United States and key leaders of Asia meet this month and the stakes are high. With timing that now looks skillful, the White House unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy 13 days in advance of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. But the welcome strategy was missing its key economic component. A subsequent announcement of the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) was an improvement, but contained little detail.

The problem is that key segments of each US political party now abhor trade agreements, whether beneficial or not. This is a serious impediment for the US policy of rebuilding alliances and strengthening partnerships, especially in Southeast Asia. ASEAN members all know well China’s power and influence and each has a significant trade relationship with China. But each worries that China’s economic and military strength may become too great. Most Southeast Asian countries, then, welcome US investment and its political weight balances outlooks and that poses no threat to anyone’s sovereignty. But ASEAN and most countries must not be asked to choose. Doubts about American attitudes remain, as do questions over whether the United States will be present if times become hard. Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—through soaring energy and food costs alone—means that geo-politics weighs much more heavily than it did last year.

Washington will seek to prove this month—despite the day-to-day pressures of supporting Ukraine after the Russian attack—that it can concurrently work on all the important issues. In mid-May, President Biden and his foreign policy team will meet in Washington for a special summit with ASEAN leaders from 8 of the 10 ASEAN members. The two absentees are the Philippines—in the middle of its election—and Myanmar’s power grasping army; Myanmar has missed ASEAN’s own meetings and is facing what amounts to a civil war. The ASEAN leaders in Washington—including Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore—will meet with President Biden in person as COVID-19 fears and travel restrictions diminish. Perhaps the United States will become a “Comprehensive Strategic Partner” of ASEAN, as was the case of China last year.

Following the ASEAN summit, President Biden will fly to Japan for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) meeting, a fine chance to meet with new leaders of Japan—Prime Minister Kishida Fumio—and South Korea’s newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol. But even more attention will focus Biden’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. For various reasons, India has chosen not to join with the United States and European Union in providing arms to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.

The world is truly multi-polar now, and many countries—often privately horrified—have not joined the West in opposing Russia’s attack. This is seen in not joining US-EU sanctions and in abstaining from UN resolutions. Some are leery of irritating China, always quick to punish middle countries that displease its “wolf warrior” officials. India has long seen itself as Russia’s friend and also wants to be seen as no one’s follower. Some of this is hard to swallow for Americans. But the period of what some saw in the 1990s as the “unilateral moment” is gone. On the possible Chinese domination of all of Asia, India and America have largely common views. But US-India cooperation is never smooth and always involves what some see as contradictions. The United States has to show patience, understanding and humility around India, as well as a helpful approach with other relationships. Nostalgia among too many Americans for a kind of early Cold War world influence is futile. Dreams of isolation from the world are worse.

In Southeast Asia no country has a more difficult task than Vietnam in balancing its foreign policies and diplomacy. A leader of ASEAN, Vietnam has been at the forefront of both security and economic issues, especially the South China Sea and China’s “Nine Dashed Line” assertions. Its relatively open economy has been growing slowly but steadily. Although Japanese and Korean investments have blossomed, “next-door” geography to China requires Vietnam to have major economic involvement with its giant neighbor. For Vietnam, China’s maritime claims as well as its developing outsize influence with Laos, Cambodia, and even Thailand are cause for concern. Every Vietnamese also knows of the centuries of disputes with China. There is a great opportunity for US-Vietnam relations to further improve.

All this underscores the importance of Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, accompanied by a high level delegation, attending the US-ASEAN summit in Washington. Vietnam’s leadership role in ASEAN has grown and US-Vietnam relations have been improving since normalization in 1995. Relations are strong in many areas. Despite memories of the war, Vietnam is a prime choice for American companies concerned with interruptions in their supply chains. Vietnam has an educated workforce, youthful demographics, and an improving ability to move finished goods. High-technology producers are noticing. Tourism is a strong post-pandemic prospect for Vietnam, at several price points. It has great beaches and quality hotels. As Vietnamese cuisine becomes better known around the world, it can draw “foodie” travelers.

May offers a fine opportunity for Washington and its Asian allies and friends—none more so than Hanoi—to improve their mutual standings. This month is a chance to fill in details to Washington’s IPEF—such as digital economies. Perhaps Vietnam’s army may even wonder whether its Russian weapons supplies are still the best choice. With the world’s second-most proven reserves for rare earth metals—key to automobiles and other batteries—Vietnam also has other resources to impress the world.

Active diplomacy with Asia is on the calendar this month and the White House does not need to dominate headlines. But it can move forward in many ways—not everything, but real movement. First would be the Quad with a steady hand involving India. Could the Quad—formally or not—welcome South Korea as at least a party to discussions? As for ASEAN, the Biden administration will have reaffirmed its unshaken involvement—especially to Vietnam and Indonesia. Summer and fall will also require follow up with each ally and partner. Keeping our interests in sight—all the time—is what will bring meaningful diplomatic progress.

James A. Kelly (kellypacf@aol.com)) is chairman of the Pacific Forum Board of Directors, and the former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNote #11 – Announcing Two New Issues & Insights Conference Reports

Pacific Forum, with the support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), organized the U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue and the U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue. Written by Jeffrey Ordaniel with co-principal investigators David Santoro and Robert Girrier, the just-released Issues & Insights Conference Reports contain key findings and recommendations from the discussions.

The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations

Washington and Hanoi left behind their past as Cold War adversaries and upgraded their relations into a comprehensive partnership in 2013. The relationship has since flourished considerably and rapidly. The next logical step is to elevate the relationship into a strategic partnership, i.e., a deepened security engagement. That process has already begun, but more work is needed, and urgently, given the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea. The region continues to face growing security challenges – from irredentist claims and blatant sidestepping of the rule of law in many of the region’s maritime spaces, to the threat of pandemics and cybersecurity. So far, most Track 2 U.S. engagements with Viet Nam have centered on issues pertaining to development, empowerment, and historical reconciliation. The time is now ripe for a security-focused dialogue involving the two countries’ top strategic thinkers to build on current gains, underscore opportunities for deeper defense cooperation, generate sound and actionable policy and operational recommendations, and highlight the importance of a tighter partnership to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and the broader region.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on U.S.–Viet Nam security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence.

Read Issues & Insights, Vol. 21, CR1 The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations here: https://pacforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/US-Vietnam-Issues-and-Insights-2021.pdf

The United States and Indonesia: Re-Converging Strategic Interests in the Indo-Pacific

The United States and Indonesia, the world’s second and third largest democracies, form a consequential relationship in the Indo-Pacific. However, despite common values and shared interests, U.S.-Indonesia relations have yet to realize their full potential, especially on the security front. Many strategic imperatives should drive closer U.S. security engagements with Indonesia. These include Jakarta’s leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other key regional institutions, its outsized role in promoting the security of vital sea-lines of communications and trading routes, its location as the archipelagic nation connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its shared interest with the United States in countering violent extremism and other trans-national threat networks, and its activist and independent foreign policy. These realities, when leveraged, can facilitate a more coordinated and effective response to a multitude of geopolitical, economic, and security challenges in the region, and can advance the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision.

The Biden Administration has made clear that the Indo-Pacific is a “top priority,” an enduring theme through several U.S. administrations. U.S. officials have also stressed that the United States will seek to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” While this framing alone is unlikely to generate in-depth Indonesian cooperation, Jakarta is interested in working with the United States to stand up to China when needed and take a leading role in ensuring Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Indonesia), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on the bilateral security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence. The organized panels were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Indonesia and in the United States of the two countries’ converging and diverging interests, defense and foreign policy doctrines, and views on key regional and global security issues.

Read Issues & Insights, Vol. 21, CR2 The United States and Indonesia: Re-Converging Strategic Interests in the Indo-Pacific here: https://pacforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/US-Indonesia-Issues-and-Insights-2021.pdf

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, CR1 — The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations

About this Report

Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. Strategic thinkers from the United States and Viet Nam, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials, participated in the dialogue. This report contains the general summary of the discussions.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. This is not a consensus document. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.

The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsors, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email jeffrey@pacforum.org.


Key Findings and Recommendations: U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue 

Washington and Hanoi left behind their past as Cold War adversaries and upgraded their relations into a comprehensive partnership in 2013. The relationship has since flourished considerably and rapidly. The next logical step is to elevate the relationship into a strategic partnership, i.e., a deepened security engagement. That process has already begun, but more work is needed, and urgently, given the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea. The region continues to face growing security challenges – from irredentist claims and blatant sidestepping of the rule of law in many of the region’s maritime spaces, to the threat of pandemics and cybersecurity. So far, most Track 2 U.S. engagements with Viet Nam have centered on issues pertaining to development, empowerment, and historical reconciliation. The time is now ripe for a security-focused dialogue involving the two countries’ top strategic thinkers to build on current gains, underscore opportunities for deeper defense cooperation, generate sound and actionable policy and operational recommendations, and highlight the importance of a tighter partnership to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and the broader region.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on U.S.–Viet Nam security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence.

Moreover, the organized panel sessions were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Viet Nam and in the United States of the two countries’ post-Cold War security cooperation, and increasingly aligned strategic interests. Doing so would promote understanding of regional security issues with implications for bilateral relations through:

  • Increased awareness and understanding in the United States about Vietnamese thinking related to regional security issues such as maritime security threats brought about by China’s expansive claims and assertiveness, cybersecurity, nonproliferation, and economic security.
  • Increased awareness among Vietnamese policy circles of U.S. security priorities related to the Indo-Pacific in general, and Viet Nam and Southeast Asia in particular.

In sum, these new expert insights and contextual recommendations advance the security relations of the two countries.

Strategic thinkers from the United States and Viet Nam, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials participated in the dialogue. The dialogue’s agenda underwent extensive pre-dialogue “socialization” with key stakeholders from both the United States and Viet Nam to ensure that topics for discussions and eventual actionable recommendations generated are relevant to the national security interests and priorities of both countries.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.


Click here to download the full report.

PacNet #42 – Has Washington Found its Feet in Southeast Asia?

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

In the months following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy. Starting in May, however, the administration heeded calls for a more active role with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region as vice president. One key “deliverable”—renewal of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success.

The administration also responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia. Southeast Asia’s continuing economic crisis, a direct result of COVID-19, has raised concerns over Southeast Asia’s place in global supply chains, an issue Harris addressed on her trip.

Diplomatic Surge

For the first half of 2021 Southeast Asians were uncertain about the new administration’s approach to China. The previous administration had failed to forge a coherent trade policy with the region, and half of Southeast Asian countries lacked a US ambassador confirmed by the Senate.

However, in late May and early June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Making Jakarta the first stop on Sherman’s itinerary signaled continued US support for “ASEAN centrality” in the face of Biden’s growing support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) as a key element of Asian regional architecture.

In late July Secretary of Defense Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Then, in late August, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made a brief stopover in Bangkok. And in late August, Vice President Kamala Harris visitedSingapore, and became the first US vice president to visit Vietnam.

With Southeast Asia in the grip of a new and more serious surge of COVID-19, US officials also underscored Washington’s position as a major vaccine donor. In Hanoi, Harris announced the opening of a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) office in Vietnam to help coordinate US efforts in Southeast Asia, and also pledged 1 million doses of COVID vaccine to Vietnam, to be delivered within 24 hours. China increased its own vaccine pledge to Vietnam prior to her arrival in Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials attempted to derail the brewing competition with a public reminder that Hanoi “does not ally with one country against another,” one of its longstanding “Three No’s” (along with no military alliances and no military bases in Vietnam).

Renewing the VFA

The most important deliverable of these visits was the renewal of the 1998 US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) facilitating military-to-military cooperation. Signed during a period of relative peace, the VFA has become increasingly relevant, both to the Philippines’ defense against Chinese maritime aggression and as a vehicle for cooperation on counter-terrorism in Mindanao. On July 30, when Austin was in Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had consented to the renewal, and also signaled that he and Austin were discussing a side agreement governing conduct of US forces in the Philippines (an expected long-term effort).

Duterte had dragged out negotiations for renewal of the VFA for more than a year in protest of criticism in the US Congress of human rights violations connected to his anti-drug campaign. The Biden administration demonstrated patience in the face of demands, aided by careful choreography between Austin and Lorenzana. Although the renewal is expected to stick, Duterte will likely remain a thorn in the side of US-Philippine security relations. On Aug. 25 he announced that he would run for vice president in the 2022 general elections, presumably with a hand-picked presidential candidate.

Duterte has publicly linked his agreement to the renewal to Washington’s steady supply of COVID vaccines—nearly 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson in July, and an equal number of Moderna in early August. He was also likely influenced by growing public disapproval of his handling of Chinese incursions into Philippine territorial waters, despite his overall public support.

Allies, Partners, and Strategic Partners

VFA renewal is a return to the status quo ante and it will mitigate China’s narrative that the United States is losing strength and resolve in the region. The Thai press, however, was quick to view the Austin and Harris trips as snubbing Bangkok and questioned the course of the US-Thailand alliance. Deputy Secretary Sherman and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s stops in Thailand were essentially placeholder visits without notable deliverables. Bangkok, and to some extent Manila, worry Washington is prioritizing newer security partners in the region, particularly Singapore and Vietnam.

But if US-Singapore military-to-military relations are solid, the same cannot be said for the emerging security relationship with Vietnam. Harris’ declaration in Hanoi that the United States was receptive to a strategic partnership with Vietnam got a cool response. Vietnamese officials offered no public comment; the near-term prospects for a strategic partnership appear slim. To be sure, US and Vietnamese officials acknowledge informally that the two often act together “strategically.” Hanoi has a number of strategic partnerships, including with China, and does seek to strengthen its relations with the United States.

However, with US-China tensions high, an announcement that Vietnam was willing to upgrade its comprehensive partnership with Washington to a strategic one would be a provocation to Beijing. Moreover, a strategic partnership applies across the board, and it is not clear what Washington is willing to offer in other areas, particularly trade. Vietnam’s strategic partnership with South Korea led to a bilateral free trade agreement, for instance. The Biden administration does not appear willing to commit to new FTAs yet.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations is positive. In June, the two countries announced that they had settled US charges of currency manipulation with a pledge from Vietnam that it would refrain from devaluing the dong to gain an export advantage.

Still, Southeast Asian leaders also worry that the Biden administration will continue former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s harsh line against China and ASEAN states will be caught in the middle. Harris and Austin made strong speeches centered on China during their trips, and Sherman’s visit to Cambodia was perceived as a sign of concern over Chinese intentions to refurbish Ream Naval Base for their exclusive use. Harris’ address painted China as a regional bully; the Chinese surrogate press charged that the Biden administration was attempting to “create a chasm.” Southeast Asian states with claims in the South China Sea or otherwise challenged by China in maritime zones welcome a principled defense of their sovereignty from Washington. In their view, however, rhetorical jousting—particularly with ideological overtones—makes it difficult for ASEAN to maintain good relations with both sides.

Looking Ahead

The Biden administration has established a new baseline in relations with Southeast Asia, giving Washington greater traction for several fall events. This month, President Biden intends to convene an in-person summit of the Quad; Southeast Asian leaders will watch carefully for signs of an emerging anti-China bloc. Additionally, the administration intends to host a Summit for Democracy in December; the choice of invitations to Southeast Asian leaders will be controversial. Due to COVID, it is not clear whether there will be an in-person East Asia Summit. If there is, Southeast Asia will expect President Biden and Secretary Blinken to participate. If the United States is truly “back” in Southeast Asia, the region will expect Washington to move beyond diplomatic visits and articulate more solid policies, particularly on trade and US relations with ASEAN.

Catharin Dalpino (catharindalpino@earthlink.net) is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. She has also served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State, published several books on US policy in Asia, and has testified frequently before Congress on US relations with Southeast Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #39 – How Public-Private Cooperation Helped Unlock US Assistance on Agent Orange

On Aug. 10, 1961, the United States began spraying aerial herbicides over South Vietnam. The spraying continued for 10 years. Agent Orange, as the herbicides became known, is the most intractable legacy of the Vietnam War. While cooperation on identifying American soldiers’ remains and removing unexploded ordnance started before normalization of relations in 1995, only in 2006 did Washington begin acknowledging responsibility for Agent Orange. It was public-private cooperation that helped break the deadlock and unlock US assistance. Addressing the Agent Orange issue can further advance US-Vietnam bilateral relations and should be a priority for Washington.

Public and Private Progress

Following US President George W. Bush’s 2006 visit to Vietnam, the two countries issued a joint statement in which Washington officially recognized the need to address Agent Orange’s consequences. Six months later, the US Congress approved the first annual funding for dioxin remediation in Vietnam. As of 2021, the amount reached $381.4 million, 75% for environmental clean-up and 25% for disability assistance.

The State Department tasked the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with administering the appropriated funds. USAID collaborated with Vietnamese authorities in environmental remediation of dioxin contamination at Da Nang Airport, completed in 2017. Clean-up efforts are underway at the Bien Hoa Air Base, the principal remaining dioxin hotspot.

Separate funds for health and disability programs were appropriated in 2011, starting at $3 million but with increased financial support from Washington in subsequent years. In 2019, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense signed a five-year memorandum earmarking $65 million to assist people with disabilities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided $14.5 million toward this goal, channeling American assistance to Vietnamese with severe disabilities in 10 heavily sprayed provinces.

A network of transnational actors, led in part by the Ford Foundation, was key to these developments.

In 1994, the Vietnamese government agreed to a Canadian proposal to search for residual dioxin in sprayed areas and assigned the work to the 10-80 Committee in the Ministry of Health. Funded by the Canadian government, the 10-80 Committee and Hatfield Consultants, Ltd. conducted the first comprehensive long-term research on dioxin residues in Vietnam. The study confirmed dioxin remained in the soil at a former American base, finding its way up the food chain and into people who returned to the area—the first empirical evidence of residual dioxin’s continuing threat to public health. These findings gave rise to the “dioxin hotspot hypothesis”; that former American bases were the most likely contaminated sites.

However, the Canadian government declined further funding, and the United States and Vietnam stalled in their attempt at a joint epidemiological study. Instead, in 2002, the Ford Foundation offered the 10-80 Committee a grant to test the dioxin hot spot hypothesis on all 2,735 former American bases in Vietnam. The 10-80 Committee-Hatfield 2006 report demonstrated that dioxin contamination was concentrated at three former bases, in Phu Cat, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa. This identified the scope of the environmental hazards and focused US-Vietnam discussions on remediation.

Hanoi had invited the Ford Foundation to Vietnam a decade earlier, and Ford became a grant-maker in several important fields. Still, Charles Bailey, the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam (one of this article’s co-authors), soon realized progress on Agent Orange was paramount. From 2000 to 2011, Ford approved nearly a hundred grants worth $17 million to Vietnamese ministries and research centers, UN agencies, and Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and other American NGOs for pilot programs to develop best practices of direct assistance to Agent Orange victims, locate dioxin hotspots, launch clean-up projects, and continuously raise the issue in the United States. Ford’s initiatives and their partners’ work rekindled interest in some US leaders, encouraging them to channel money to USAID for use in Vietnam.

In 2007, Ford helped establish a track-2 channel, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford convened the Group, which comprised eminent citizens, scientists, victims’ supporters, and policymakers from both countries. In 2010, the group published its 10-year comprehensive Plan of Action. The plan set goals and detailed the required steps on disability assistance and clean up, calling for $300 million from the United States and other donors. In 2019, US assistance surpassed that benchmark, and many of the goals were being achieved.

This story in Vietnam is told mainly as a government matter, but philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation can play a role in such circumstances. When government-to-government cooperation was at an impasse, Ford acted as a facilitator and trust-builder. It had the freedom, resources, and courage to help solve the problem.

Public-Private Cooperation

Still, support from US leaders was critical. The most prominent advocate is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who used evidence from the 10-80 Committee-Hatfield dioxin hotspot studies to push for US involvement in environmental remediation and aid to Agent Orange victims. His seniority in the Senate led him to spearhead these initiatives, and in 2015 he said that the United States had “a moral obligation to do something about [the Agent Orange legacy].”

Tim Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy advisor, and Michael W. Marine, US ambassador to Vietnam from 2004 to 2007, led the effort to arrange funding on the ground. Having witnessed first-hand the damages of Agent Orange in Vietnam and talked to Vietnamese representatives, they were determined to bring about joint US-Vietnam actions in mitigating consequences of dioxin and helping impacted Vietnamese.

Without such leadership, US assistance to Agent Orange victims would not have been possible.

Charles Bailey worked closely with Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang and his colleagues, Dr. Le Ke Son (head of the Vietnam government’s coordinating committee on Agent Orange), as well as Rieser, Marine, subsequent US ambassadors, and the Dialogue Group to ensure continuing progress. Last July, at the launch of the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative, Deputy Minister of Defense and Senior Lt. General Hoang Xuan Chien thanked the Ford Foundation, and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed appreciation for the “practical support from philanthropists at home and abroad” in his letter to Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims on Agent Orange Awareness Day.

What’s Next

Problems remain. USAID-sponsored activities remain limited and do not reach all potential victims inside or outside priority provinces. Many victims and advocates are bitter that the US government recognizes dioxin-related illnesses suffered by American war veterans but not among Vietnamese. A recent lawsuit against former American Agent Orange producers is a reminder that it is critical to pay more attention to victims’ needs and concerns. Also, the Agent Orange legacy in Laos and Cambodia remains unaddressed. The lessons from US-Vietnam cooperation in this regard could inform future US efforts in helping these two countries mitigate dioxin consequences.

Overcoming sensitivities will not be easy, but while the same was true two decades ago, Hanoi and Washington now have even greater incentives to remove barriers to closer bilateral relations. A victim-centered approach requiring US direct assistance to the victims and recognition of their plight will not only address the Agent Orange issue and promote justice for the victims but can also increase confidence and cooperation between Vietnam and the United States.

Phan Xuan Dung (PHAN0057@e.ntu.edu.sg) is a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum. He obtained an MSc degree in Asian Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and a BA in International Relations from Tokyo International University in Japan.

Charles Bailey (charles.baileyadv@gmail.com) headed the Ford Foundation in Vietnam from 1997 to 2007 and then directed the Agent Orange programs at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute until 2014. He is the author, with Le Ke Son, of From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the US, and Agent Orange.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.