“US and Vietnam Need to Build on Momentum of Carrier Visit” by Le Hong Hiep

2018/18, 5 March 2018

American aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit to Danang from 5 to 9 March 2018 is a significant landmark in the accelerating rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States. USS Carl Vinson is the first American aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam after the Vietnam War, and, together with two accompanying warships and 6,000 servicemen, constitutes the largest American military presence in the country since then.

In 2010, when the two countries celebrated the 15th anniversary of their diplomatic normalization, American carrier USS George Washington anchored off the coast of Danang and received visiting Vietnamese officials who boarded the giant ship from helicopters. Therefore, USS Carl Vinson’s visit to Danang this time can be seen as a significant move that literally brings the two former enemies closer and signifies a greater level of trust between them.

More importantly, the visit shows that the two countries are now much more comfortable than eight years ago in conducting high-profile defence cooperation activities. This is a natural yet hard-earned outcome resulting from their continuous efforts to cultivate defence ties over the past ten years.

After the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence relations in 2011, their defence cooperation has seen rapid progress. Most notable cooperative activities include exchanges of visits by high-ranking defence officials, port calls by US warships to Vietnam, and Washington’s provision of maritime capacity building assistance to Hanoi. After President Obama fully lifted the long-standing lethal arms sales ban on Vietnam in 2016, the two countries are now discussing possible arms deals and Vietnam may buy certain US weapons systems or military equipment in the near future. The two countries also announced two years ago that they were considering the joint production of military equipment.

The two sides should seize upon the positive momentum generated by USS Carl Vinson’s visit to turn bilateral high-profile defence cooperation into a “new normal”. Accordingly, the two sides should consider high-profile, substantive defence cooperation activities as normal practices that are not to be seen by both sides as “sensitive”. By the same token, they should not be worried that such activities would “offend” a third party as long as they do not constitute a direct threat to that party.

For the time being, these cooperation activities may include regular visits by US warships to Vietnam, joint military exercises, arms sales, and joint production of weapons and military equipment. Other activities may gradually be added to the list as the two sides see fit. In the short term, a simple way to start this process is perhaps to turn visits by US aircraft carriers to Vietnam into routine events that may take place on an annual basis.

The normalization and institutionalization of such defence cooperation activities will help deepen the “comprehensive partnership” between the two countries and enable them to better meet the new security challenges arising from ominous shifts in the region’s geo-strategic landscape.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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