Following the withdrawal of its armed forces from Indochina in 1973 and the defeat of South Vietnam by the North in 1975, the US became disinterested, even passive, in its attitude to Indochina affairs. For some Americans, any mention of Vietnam brought up feelings of loss and revulsion. It was not until 1995, following the settlement of the Cambodian problem in the early 1990s, that the US restored normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
In recent years, as China has become stronger both economically and militarily, the US has started to worry that its own sphere of influence in Southeast Asia could be irrevocably weakened. In response, the administration of US President Barack Obama has rapidly adjusted its policy toward Southeast Asia, especially Indochina, and has shown a strong interest in matters related to the South China Sea.
In 2005, the US and Vietnam signed a military cooperation agreement, which included plans for the US to provide military education and training to officers in the Vietnamese armed forces, and in June 2006 then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Vietnam for the first time.
Over the past few years, Vietnam, feeling threatened by China’s growing power and its activities in the South China Sea, has gradually turned toward the US in its foreign policy. It made friendly overtures to the US, offering access to the Cam Ranh Bay navy base, invited US companies to drill in its offshore oilfields, exchanged high-level visits and welcomed US businesspeople and Vietnamese Americans to invest in Vietnam.
Since 2008, Vietnam and the US have also held an annual US-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue, with the venue alternating between Hanoi and Washington. The two sides discuss peacekeeping actions and training, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, cooperation in fighting terrorism and narcotics trafficking, border security, preventing weapons proliferation, mutual visits by senior figures from both sides, as well as how to strengthen understanding between the two countries’ armed forces among others.
On March 30 last year, the US and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, under which the US will help Vietnam build nuclear power plants. Vietnam’s first two planned nuclear power plants will have two reactors each, generating a total of 4 gigawatts of electricity. The US Department of Energy is training Vietnamese officials in non-proliferation and safety methods. It also helped the country draw up a nuclear power law, which was enacted in 2008, and is helping the country implement nuclear export controls.
In November 2009, the US Navy sent missile destroyer the USS Lassen, under the command of its first-ever Vietnamese-American captain, Hung Ba Le, on a goodwill visit to the port city of Da Nang. On Aug. 9 last year, another missile destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, visited Da Nang, and took part in a joint training exercise with the Vietnamese navy. At the same time, the US also dispatched a strike group of three destroyers to take part in joint exercises with the Vietnamese navy in the South China Sea.
In June last year, the hospital ship USNS Mercy stayed for 13 days in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam, providing medical services in which 1,000 healthcare workers from the US and other countries took part.
Last year Vietnam performed repairs and maintenance on two US navy vessels, and the Vietnamese defense ministry has decided to send officers for training at a US staff officer college and other military schools.
In 2007, the US Congress amended its International Traffic in Arms Regulations, allowing the sale of some non-lethal defensive weapons and services to Vietnam, though such sales are to be examined and decided upon case by case. The US provided Vietnam with US$500,000 in military assistance in fiscal year 2009, US$1.35 million last year and US$1.1 million this year.
Similar developments have been taking place in relation to Cambodia. Following the end of the Vietnam War, the US kept its distance from Cambodian affairs, as a result of which the country leaned toward China. Beijing provided Cambodia with a large amount of military assistance and the country became a strategic base for China in Indochina, counterbalancing Vietnam on the latter’s southern flank.
In 2004, the US Department of State and Department of Defense launched the Global Peace Operations Initiative, the purpose of which is to assist countries in preserving peace by countering terrorism, rebellions, crime and intercommunal conflict. Under this initiative, on May 3 last year, the US allocated US$1.8 million to set up a Peacekeeping Training Center in Cambodia. Since 2006, the US has supplied Cambodia with US$4.5 million worth of military equipment and training. It also plans to continue assisting Cambodia in defense reform, military professionalization, border and maritime security, counterterrorism, civil-military operations and landmine clearance, with the purpose of strengthening civil and military relations between the two countries.
On July 12 last year, 23 countries including France, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, India, Italy, Japan, the UK, Mongolia and Germany took part in the Angkor Sentinel peacekeeping exercise in Cambodia, sponsored by the US armed forces. The maneuvers involved 1,200 military personnel. It was the first time Cambodia has hosted such a large-scale international peacekeeping exercise.
In 2009, the US proposed the Lower Mekong Initiative, with the participation of the US, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. So far, foreign ministers of the five participating countries have held three meetings under the initiative. In July last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, saying that the US would give four countries in the Mekong River basin — Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — US$187 million in economic aid for last year, to help people suffering the effects of climate change and infectious diseases. This aid was to be used mainly in the fields of aquatic resources, food security and healthcare. The US’ Mississippi River Commission and the four-country Mekong River Commission will work together and collaborate in monitoring the effect on the lower Mekong River of dam construction on its upper reaches.
In conclusion, Vietnam is a lower-middle-income emerging economy in Southeast Asia. The US attaches great importance to its role in countering China’s increasing influence in the region and maintaining its own influence in Southeast Asia. The US has changed its strategic objectives in Southeast Asia to include not just the South China Sea, but also Indochina. Clearly, the US is in the process of building a new military-security network on the Indochinese peninsula.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Tamkang University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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