- The future of Vietnam-U.S. defense and security cooperation relies on meaningful policies that can meet both sides’ needs in the South China Sea and beyond. A deeper engagement of the U.S. Coast Guard in Southeast Asia can be a promising avenue toward that end, especially given China’s “grey zone” tactics to gain de facto control over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
- A comprehensive engagement by the U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea can be seen by Vietnam as a catalyst that effectively enhances the bilateral relationship and contributes to the evolving regional security architecture.
- As a leading power with a network of allies and security partners, Washington should demonstrate that it can find innovative ways to deal with unprecedented challenges. But to engage effectively with Vietnam, the United States should be patient and needs to diversify its engagement methods, including through multilateral coast guard cooperation arrangements.
- For Vietnam, strengthening its security partnership with the United States requires bold thinking and actions. At the same time, the two countries should also look for new and feasible cooperation initiatives to deepen mutual trust and strengthen practical cooperation in mutually beneficial areas.
*Guest writer, Nguyen The Phuong, is a PhD Candidate in Maritime Security at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. He is also a Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and Finance (UEF).
ISEAS Perspective 2022/98, 6 October 2022
Although diplomats from both Vietnam and the United States have given special prominence to the two countries’ growing comprehensive partnership, many challenges remain. In particular, despite gradual concrete improvement in recent years, defense and security cooperation has not met expectations. Vietnamese policymakers’ indecisiveness and their exaggerated fear of potential retaliations from China have been cited by analysts as reasons why they hesitate to actively push for significant breakthroughs in bilateral defense and security ties.
The future of Vietnam-U.S. defense and security cooperation relies in part on meaningful policies that can meet both sides’ objectives in the South China Sea and beyond. If the United States undertakes projects that can have a real and profound impact on the South China Sea situation that is favourable for Hanoi, Vietnam would respond positively. The author’s personal dialogues with both Vietnamese and U.S. scholars and officials reveal the need for practical collaborative projects that can boost bilateral defense ties, increase Vietnam’s confidence in Washington’s regional commitments and effectively tame China’s assertive behaviour in regional waters. One of the possible avenues for the two sides to conduct such projects is through the increased engagement of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in Southeast Asia’s maritime domain. This article discusses how Vietnam can and should play a proactive role in the shaping of such an initiative.
A MEANINGFUL PROJECT: USCG IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
In March 2019, the USCG cutter Bertholf joined a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, to transit the Taiwan Strait for the first time. Two months later, the same vessel conducted a maritime exercise with the Philippine Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal. Another USCG cutter, the Stratton, has been deployed alongside the U.S. 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan. In 2021, the USCG cutter Munro, part of the U.S. 7th Fleet, conducted engagements with Japanese and Filipino navies and maritime enforcement agencies. According to Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, as a military service of the United States, the USCG can integrate seamlessly into defense operations alongside the Navy and other services.
U.S. coast guard cooperation with Southeast Asian countries has been ongoing for some time. For example, Washington has provided technical assistance, financial support, training and capacity-building to regional maritime law enforcement agencies, including Vietnam’s, through selective maritime security institutions such as the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative (formerly known as the Gulf of Thailand Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative) or the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative. However, these initiatives were not designed for the U.S. to initiate strategic reorientation toward the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. It seems that Washington considers these coast guard cooperation activities less important than other maritime security priorities, although the U.S. Coast Guard 2018-2022 Strategic Plan did call for steps to “strategically orient time and resources toward international activities that maximize return on investment to national and Coast Guard priorities; and foster international capacity-building efforts in regions that are […] critical to U.S. interests”.
Despite the abovementioned activities and the importance of Southeast Asia for U.S. maritime strategy, the USCG did not have “even a single operational vessel west of Guam”. This changed in May 2022 when President Biden hosted the U.S. – ASEAN Special Summit, where Washington announced that a USCG vessel would be assigned to the region to operate as a “training platform”, provide multinational crewing opportunities and participate in cooperative maritime engagements. A regional-based technical training team will also be established to provide capacity building in the areas of institutional development, readiness, sustainment of equipment and workforce professionalism. Where their assets will be based remains unclear, but it is highly likely that Guam will be the operational centre for the USCG’s activities in Southeast Asia.
The permanent presence of an official USCG detachment in the South China Sea could be the first step for a deeper engagement of the USCG in Southeast Asia. Based on previous experiences between USCG and regional maritime law enforcement agencies, such a service can help establish a multi-national task force of paramilitary and civilian agencies for upholding international law and combating illegal activities at sea, while fending off Chinese assertiveness by mirroring Beijing’s tactics. However, the deployment should be assigned to one of the regional countries, not at a base outside the South China Sea. Such a comprehensive engagement by the USCG will likely be considered by Vietnamese policymakers as a meaningful project that, as explained in the next section, not only effectively enhances the bilateral relationship, but also encourages Hanoi to proactively contribute to the evolving regional security architecture.
Since the United States conducted its first Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) mission in the South China Sea in 2013, Vietnamese policymakers have carefully observed U.S. military activities in the region. Several of them, mostly within the military, have not been impressed. They perceive the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy at best as lacking substance in dealing with China’s unconventional tactics at sea, and at worst as lame-duck thinking that can do nothing to constrain China’s rise. Several U.S. scholars have also raised questions about the effectiveness of FONOPs, considering them insufficient in preventing2022 Beijing from using the “grey zone” tactic in the South China Sea.
Any “breakthrough” initiatives that involve Vietnam in the maritime security domain will need to meet two requirements. First, the policy of “4-nos and 1-depend” highlighted by Vietnam in its 2019 Defense White Paper needs to be upheld. In other words, such initiatives should not generate the impression that Hanoi is banding with Washington against Beijing. Fortunately, the “1-depend” principle provides some flexibility for Vietnam to hedge against China. It opens the door for deeper defense cooperation and creates a sense that existing limitations, or restrictions, in security and defense cooperation between the two countries are subject to changes.
Second, Vietnam’s concerns behind its hesitance to conduct meaningful security cooperation with the United States need to be addressed. An interlocutor within the U.S. Coast Guard once told the author that “every country in Southeast Asia wants the U.S. to lead, but they don’t want to be led by the U.S., and Vietnam is a particularly good example of that.” This could be an overstatement, but it does, to some extent, reflect the strategic thinking of many regional countries. The reluctance of most Southeast Asian states to get closer to the United States mainly results from China’s increasing political, economic and military influence in the region. Indeed, Hanoi deliberately restricts military cooperation with Washington because “it was afraid of sending a wrong signal to Beijing”. This fear, exacerbated by strategic distrust, becomes a huge obstacle to meaningful cooperation between Vietnam and the United States.
Against this backdrop, increasing USCG’s engagement with Vietnam’s diverse maritime forces in the South China Sea could be the right step toward expanding maritime cooperation between the two countries. Unlike the Navy, the coast guard, as a softer tool for maritime enforcement, can help reduce the “sensitiveness” that inherently informs Vietnam’s concern regarding maritime security cooperation with America. And, as argued below, it may also be a relevant tool to counter China’s “grey zone” tactic in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
VIETNAM LIKELY TO SUPPORT USCG ENGAGEMENT IN SOUTH CHINA SEA
Both Vietnam and the United States need to appreciate that China will pursue “war by other means”. Indeed, many Vietnamese strategists seem to believe that Beijing does not want to fire the first shot in any war, conventional or nuclear. Instead, such “grey zone” tactics have been a cornerstone in China’s maritime strategy in the Indo-Pacific since 2009, and have enabled Chinese maritime forces to incrementally change the status quo without firing a single shot. The United States, as the leading superpower, imagines victory in a high-intensity war in the Western Pacific, and has devoted resources to ensure that scenario. However, China does not need to go to war to assert its control over regional waters. Therefore, the United States must invest in relevant capabilities to counter Chinese “grey zone” coercion.
Vietnam has been mirroring China’s approach in the South China Sea, albeit on a smaller scale. Vietnam’s coast guard fleet and fisheries resources surveillance force are among the largest in Southeast Asia. They have been at the forefront of nearly every recent confrontation with Chinese maritime forces at sea. However, one of the main disadvantages of the Vietnam Coast Guard is its limited number of vessels and their relatively small size. The continuous presence of USCG cutters in the South China Sea may help ease the pressure on smaller regional coast guards, including Vietnam’s, especially in international waters around the Paracels and the Spratlys. The frequency and intensity of confrontation may increase, but the nature of “white-hull” forces allows them to avoid the dire diplomatic and military risks that their “grey hull” counterpart (i.e., naval forces) may otherwise have to face.
The permanent presence of a powerful law enforcement force like the USCG in the South China Sea may also soften the suspicious attitude towards U.S. intentions and commitments to the region among regional countries. Because of the constabulary and less militaristic nature of white hulls, it may also be easier for Vietnam to accept some form of maritime security network in which coast guards play a central role. Such an arrangement may focus on dealing with less sensitive issues such as protecting the environment and maritime resources, combating piracy, armed robbery and illegal fishing.
Such a network of like-minded maritime law enforcement partners could play an essential role in strengthening and expanding the maritime domain awareness capabilities of Vietnam’s maritime forces. Since 2016, the United States has provided nearly US$100 million in capacity-building assistance to help strengthen Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness and its presence in its waters in the South China Sea. This involves the provision of professional training as well as equipment such as coastal radars or unmanned aerial systems. Maritime domain awareness is not only about sharing technology, know-how or intelligence but also about networking and actual joint activities to improve regional security. Vietnam has generally been hesitant to join regional joint-patrol schemes. However, this may change if ASEAN maritime member countries and the United States, along with its traditional allies such as Japan or Australia, come up with a well-planned and well-executed mini-lateral initiative with coast guard forces acting as lead players. The first operations of such an initiative could take place in the southern part of the South China Sea, where Vietnam and other Southeast Asian maritime countries have been actively participating in other initiatives involving the United States such as the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise, or many other workshops and exercises hosted by the Indonesian Coast Guard in partnership with the USCG.
One could even expect a more open attitude from Vietnamese officials towards the concept of “places not bases”, where white-hull cutters instead of naval warships will be welcomed. Currently, Singapore is considered the best option for this concept within the boundary of the South China Sea as it already hosts a significant U.S. Navy presence, as well as rotationally deployed ships. Vietnam can offer an alternative option for supplies in case the USCG wishes to deploy a permanent detachment to the region. Several ports in southern Vietnam, especially Phu Quoc Island or Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, may welcome USCG cutters if they dock for supplies or replenishment before sailing off to conduct patrol missions in the South China Sea or moving to other places. Visits to these locations would be less politically sensitive as these are located in areas where non-traditional maritime security issues, such as illegal and unregulated fishing activities, piracy, or environmental degradation, are common. Moreover, the USCG and other regional coast guards can also use them as logistical hubs, especially in joint-patrol missions, which helps to further legitimize their involvement in the initiative.
Memories and experiences from the socio-economic crisis in the 1980s created two enduring security concerns that came to shape Vietnam’s security mindset. Economic collapse gave rise to reformist “new thinkers” who believed that market-oriented reforms and international integration were needed to transform the country’s frail economy. It also created a sense of insecurity among the conservative “old thinkers” because the legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is in part based on socio-economic performance, was severely undermined. However, the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s imbued among the conservatives a high level of skepticism towards liberal ideas embraced by the “new thinkers”.
The success of any meaningful maritime security initiative between Vietnam and the United States therefore relies heavily on the attitude the dogmatic “old-thinkers” might hold towards it. Washington has always been considered by Hanoi as a valuable “comprehensive partner”, especially in terms of economic and maritime cooperation. But one of the factors that has caused Vietnam to be hesitant in upgrading bilateral ties to the “strategic partnership” level is the conviction among certain old thinkers that the United States remains a potential threat to the Party’s regime security. American officials have been frustrated with the overcautious attitude of their Vietnamese counterparts, as this has hampered security cooperation between the two countries.
However, mutual trust has been improving in recent years, helping to ease the old thinkers’ suspicion towards the U.S. intentions in strengthening defense and security ties with Vietnam. Depending on the level of trust, Washington should treat the issue of coast guard cooperation patiently or push it through a multilateral initiative that includes several ASEAN stakeholders such as Indonesia or the Philippines in order to make Vietnamese officials more comfortable with such collaboration projects.
On the part of Vietnam, strengthening the security partnership with the United States requires bold thinking and action. Hanoi should not passively wait for cooperative opportunities with Washington to emerge. There have been growing voices from regional scholars urging Vietnam to take up a leadership role in areas where it has strength, including maritime security. Washington has recently clarified its positions on maritime disputes in the South China Sea and decried China’s maritime claims there as “unlawful”, paving the way for more concrete policies against Beijing. Vietnam, as a main claimant state with a large stake in the South China Sea, should be bold and quick in defining its role in the regional maritime domain and looking for new initiatives to address the evolving maritime challenges. Its paramilitary and civilian maritime forces can lead the way by joining an active network of regional coast guard forces that includes the USCG to promote its national interests and uphold the rules-based international maritime order.
 Bich T. Tran (2020), Will We See a US-Vietnam Strategic Partnership?, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/will-we-see-a-us-vietnam-strategic-partnership/.
 The Phuong Nguyen (2019), Vietnam’s Need to Become a Proactive Middle Power, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-need-to-become-a-proactive-middle-power/.
 USNI News, US Coast Guard Continues to Expand Presence in the Western Pacific, https://news.usni.org/2021/09/03/u-s-coast-guard-continues-to-expand-pressence-in-the-western-pacific.
 See Amy E. Searight (2020), U.S. Coast Guard cooperation with Southeast Asia: Maritime Challenges and Strategic Opportunities”, Statement before the US Congress, Center for Strategic & International Studies, https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/110649/witnesses/HHRG-116-PW07-Wstate-SearightA-20200310.pdf.
 US White House (2015), FACT SHEET: U.S. Building Maritime Capacity in Southeast Asia, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/17/fact-sheet-us-building-maritime-capacity-southeast-asia.
 Herzinger, 2019.
 U.S. Department of Defense (2018), Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Nov/16/2002063979/-1/-1/0/USCG_STRATEGIC%20PLAN__LORES%20PAGE_20181115_VFINAL.PDF.
 Blake Herzinger (2019), Reorienting the Coast Guard: A Case for Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific, War on The Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/reorienting-the-coast-guard-a-case-for-patrol-forces-indo-pacific/.
 US White House (2022), FACT SHEET: U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, DC, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/12/fact-sheet-u-s-asean-special-summit-in-washington-dc/.
 Herzinger, 2019.
 Author’s interview with Vietnamese military officers, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, December 2021.
 For instance, see Zack Cooper & Gregory B. Poling (2019), America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations are Lost at Sea, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/08/americas-freedom-of-navigation-operations-are-lost-at-sea/.
 This policy refers to Vietnam’s principles of no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases on its soil, and no using of force or threatening to use force in international relations. At the same time, Vietnam also stressed that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries”. See Vietnam Ministry of National Defence (2019), 2019 Vietnam National Defence, http://www.mod.gov.vn/wps/wcm/connect/08963129-c9cf-4c86-9b5c-81a9e2b14455/2019VietnamNationalDefence.pdf.
 The Phuong Nguyen (2019), Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper: Preparing for a Fragile Future, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-2019-defense-white-paper-preparing-for-a-fragile-future/.
 Do Thanh Hai (2021), Vietnam and China: ideological bedfellows, strange dreamers, Journal of Contemporary East Asian Studies, Vol 10, Issue 2, p. 174.
 According to the Australian Department of Defense, grey-zone activities are “coercive statecraft actions short of war. The grey-zone is a mainly non-military domain of human activity in which states use national resources to deliberately coerce other states. States achieve grey-zone goals using multiple, apparently unrelated innocent/low attributable, mutually-supporting and synchronized statecraft techniques below the threshold of war. Grey-zone campaigns seek to exploit adversaries’ weaknesses and suppress adversaries’ response options, all the while achieving tangible national strategic aims”. See more at “Grey Zone”, The Perry Group, Australian Defense College, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/perry-group-papers/grey-zone.
 The Phuong Nguyen (2020), Vietnam’s Maritime Militia is not a Black Hole in the South China Sea, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-maritime-militia-is-not-a-black-hole-in-the-south-china-sea/.
 U.S. Department of State (2021), U.S. Security Cooperation with Vietnam, https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-vietnam/.
 On the trust-building process between Vietnam and the United States over the past three decades, see Ted Osius (2021), Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Rutgers University Press.
 Ralf Emmers & Huong Le Thu (2021), “Vietnam and the search for security leadership in ASEAN”, Asian Security, Vol 17, Issue 1, pp. 64-78. See also, Joshua Bernard B. Espena & Don McLain Gill (2020), Indonesia and Vietnam: The Quest for ASEAN Leadership, Geopolitical Monitor, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/indonesia-and-vietnam-the-quest-for-asean-leadership/.
 Zack Cooper and Bonnies S. Glaser (2020), What Options are on the Table in the South China Sea, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/.
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