Vietnamese Minister of Defense General Phung Quang Thanh

  • photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos www.flickr.com/photos/39955793@N07/4189966147
    Dec 14, 2009

    Over the weekend, Minister of Defense Senior Lt. General Phung Quang Thanh of Vietnam landed in Washington, D.C. The fact that this is only the second visit of a Vietnamese defense minister to the United States underlines the nascent nature of the strategic relationship between these two former combatant countries, but belies the high level of practical convergence of interests shared by both nations.

    Since relations were normalized in 1995, the United States and Vietnam have broadened and deepened ties considerably. Military to military and security cooperation have lagged behind economic and diplomatic linkages, but could be significantly enhanced by Minister Thanh’s visit. This visit should be viewed as part of a process heretofore marked by reciprocal visits every third year started by then U.S. secretary of defense and former U.S. senator Bill Cohen in the year 2000.

    Common concerns about China’s increasing economic influence and military presence in Asia have accelerated the pace and enlarged the scope of discussions. Possible headlines include expansion of training and education efforts, exploring more regular exchanges of visits, seeking support for U.S. involvement in the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting (ADMM), and moving toward future military-to-military sales. This Q & A touches on key issues related the visit and the status of the U.S.-Vietnam strategic and security relationship.

    Q1: Whom will Minister Thanh meet, and what is the agenda for the visit?

    A1: The minister is visiting the United States at the invitation of U.S. secretary of defense Robert M. Gates. He will start the weekend in Hawaii and meet PACOM Commander Robert Willard. On Monday in Washington, D.C., he will meet Secretary Gates, National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, as well as U.S. senators John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R- IN), Jim Webb (D-VA), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and key officials in charge of U.S. policy in Asia and POW/MIA cooperation. The agenda for the visit is to continue to build trust and cooperation between Vietnam and the United States and expand military-to-military cooperation in the areas of training, technical cooperation, and possibly opening the important area of military-to-military sales. Vietnam will host the ADMM in 2010, and there will be discussions about the United States joining that discussion as one of the “Plus One” partners of ASEAN. U.S. leaders will also surely remind the minister and his delegation that concerns over human rights, rule of law, and religious freedom are core elements of U.S. foreign policy concerns and that continued progress in these areas is key to advancing the bilateral relationship.

    Q2: What are the potential headlines of the visit?

    A2: If granted their wishes, the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the Pentagon would avoid any headlines surrounding the visit. Such is the nature of serious strategic and security relationships. Quiet and practical progress will be the goal of both countries during this visit. Issues likely to focus attention, however, include the fact both nations are concerned about China’s increasing military presence in Asia, particularly with China’s more aggressive presence in the South China Sea over the past year. U.S. officials have called ties with Vietnam a “priority relationship” while describing Minister Thanh’s visit and have indicated that the relationship must progress “at its own pace.” The visit will build on the security aspects of the U.S. Vietnam Strategic Dialogue held last year. The two sides will discuss enhanced security cooperation and explore military-to-military ties as well as continued good cooperation on POW/MIA, demining, and relief for victims of Agent Orange. Issues such as future military-to-military sales are likely to be discussed but may be too sensitive to advance significantly, given that Vietnam is in the midst of its political cycle in which its leaders struggle for position within the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) ahead of the Party Congress in 2011. The CPV has strong ties with the Chinese Communist Party, and while the MOD of Vietnam may have an understandably ambivalent perspective toward China (its primary national security concern), the CPV will want to ensure that any discussions between the MOD and the Americans don’t go too far in provoking Beijing.

    Q3: What is the context for the visit? Is there a timeline for U.S.-Vietnam relations?

    A3: U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations were officially “normalized” in 1995. Since U.S. secretary of defense Bill Cohen visited Hanoi in 2000, a process of reciprocal trips taking place every three years has ensued. Vietnam’s minister of defense Pham Van Tra made his historic first visit by a Vietnamese minister of defense in 2003, and U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Hanoi in 2006. Minister Thanh’s visit keeps that process on schedule, marking the very sensitive nature of rebuilding ties between militaries that faced one another on the battlefield less than five decades ago, costing more than 3 million Vietnamese lives and as well as 58,000 American lives. The results of these earlier visits have been a notable expansion of contact between the U.S. and Vietnamese military, including visits of naval ships, close cooperation on training focused on demining, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and POW/MIA issues.

    Q4: Can you put the U.S.-Vietnam strategic relationship in context of U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia and Asia generally?

    A4: The Obama administration is off to a strong start in Southeast Asia. It has made an important down payment on engagement in Southeast Asia. While the United States has not yet articulated a comprehensive Asia or ASEAN strategy, key pillars of engagement have been put in place. The Obama team is receiving high marks on getting the “form” right. The region is now focusing on whether substantive involvement will follow and be sustained. The deepening of U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Indonesia strategic relationships would be important parts of substantive U.S. commitment to the region. In that sense, Minister Thanh’s visit is very important.

    Interestingly, many analysts attribute the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy for Southeast Asia to the war in Vietnam. The experience, they argue, left a very bitter taste in the mouths of keypolicy makers who focused U.S. interests in Asia on Japan, Korea, and Australia, and later on managing a rising China. Southeast Asia was ignored the foreign policymaking apparatus and descended into malaise in which the US reacted to stimuli, but did not manage issues within a strategic context. ASEAN’s substantial strategic value—as a 10-country region of 650 million people, home to the world’s largest and most moderate Islamic population, guardian of strategic and commercially vital shipping lanes in the Straits of Malacca, and a major destination for U.S. investment (in 2008 the United States had invested more than $153 billion in ASEAN, compared with only $45 billion in China and $16 billion in India)—went largely unrecognized. Ironically, it may be Vietnam that helps the United States define its modern-day strategy for Southeast Asia. Vietnam shares U.S. interests in seeing a strong and independent ASEAN able to provide balance to rising power in China and India. ASEAN is also the only venue where the United States can indirectly but effectively engage China, and arguably India, in a wide and compelling range of issues of mutual interest.

    Secretary of State Clinton has signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), and President Obama participated in the first ever U.S.-ASEAN Summit with all 10 ASEAN heads of government last month in Singapore. President Obama committed to attend the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in 2010, and there are good reasons to believe that could be held in Hanoi. Vietnam is the chair of ASEAN next year, and 2010 is the 15th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations and Hanoi’s 1000th birthday. Holding the 2nd U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Hanoi would project a very strong message of U.S. regional engagement and extend U.S. soft power in Asia.

    Ernest Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (ebower@csis.org; telephone 202-775-3277; Twitter: SoutheastAsiaDC).

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Ernest Z. Bower