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“US-Vietnam Dynamics: US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s Vietnam Visit” by Ha Hoang Hop and Lye Liang Fook

2019/101, 27 November 2019

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper visited Vietnam on his last stop to Asia in November 2019 that saw him also travelling to South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. From the US perspective, the Vietnam visit is important on at least two levels. First, the visit underscores the United States commitment to strengthen its relations with Vietnam in general and defense ties with Vietnam in particular. Secretary Esper emphasized the long-standing relationship between the two countries in his first official visit to Vietnam. He described America’s defense ties with Vietnam as strong and as one of the strongest pillars in US – Vietnam multifaceted relationship. He further committed the United States to help Vietnam enhance its military capabilities and increase cooperation in areas of common interest including maritime security and maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping operations. The two countries were also appreciative of each other’s efforts in locating the remains of their servicemen still missing in action since the Vietnam War.

On defense cooperation in particular, Secretary Esper announced that the United States would transfer a second Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter to Vietnam. This is a continuation of US’ efforts to beef up Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capabilities when it first transferred a Hamilton-class Coast Guard Cutter to Vietnam in 2017. More notably, in 2018, the USS Carl Vinson made history when it became the first US aircraft carrier to visit Da Nang, Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War. The two countries are reportedly working on the visit of a second US aircraft carrier to Vietnam as well as for such port stops to become a regular feature of their relationship. In short, US-Vietnam ties have continued to strengthen under the Trump administration and the United States seeks to build a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam.

On its part, Vietnam has welcomed Secretary Esper’s visit and regarded it as a move to promote bilateral defense ties in a more intensive, practical and effective manner. More importantly, Vietnam saw the defense relationship as progressing in line with existing agreements that included the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation and the 2015 Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations and Cooperative Program in the 2018-2020 period. Reflecting the level of importance Vietnam attached to the visit, Secretary Esper was granted high level access to two Vietnamese leaders, namely Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Head of Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Secretariat Tran Quoc Vuong. Vuong is a possible candidate to succeed current Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong whose frail health rendered him unable to meet Secretary Esper during his visit. Esper’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, had called on Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in his first visit to Vietnam in January 2018.

The second important aspect of Secretary Esper’s visit was to reaffirm US support for a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based order in the South China Sea. In particular, Secretary Esper criticized China for its “unilateral efforts to assert illegitimate maritime claims” that “threaten other nations’ access to vital natural resources, undermine the stability of regional energy markets, and increase the risk of conflict”. He further reiterated the United States’ firm opposition to “intimidation by any claimant state to assert its territorial or maritime claims” and for an “end to the bullying and unlawful activities that are negatively impacting ASEAN coastal states”. Before his Vietnam visit, Secretary Esper had also singled China out for criticism when he met his ASEAN counterparts at the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus in Bangkok.

Vietnam has refrained from making any public endorsement of Esper’s remarks on China although it may privately agree with them. So far, Vietnam’s official comments on Secretary Esper’s visit has been confined to how the visit has helped to strengthen bilateral ties including cooperation on addressing the consequences of the Vietnam War. Such restraint is understandable in light of Vietnam’s omni-directional foreign policy that seeks to avoid over-dependence on any particular foreign country and its geographical proximity to China. It is also in line with Vietnam’s “three no’s” defense policy, namely no allying with one country against another, no foreign troops on Vietnam soil, and no military alliances with foreign powers. And as current ASEAN Chair, Vietnam will have to deftly manage a United States keen on closer strategic partnership with Vietnam and a China that is alert to any attempts/efforts to contain or constrain its development.

Dr Ha Hoang Hop is Senior Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Mr Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the same institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.