This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Friday that the U.S. and Vietnam were “elevating” their security partnership as he completed a tour of nations in South and Southeast Asia that was characterized by his strong rhetoric against China.
Pompeo arrived in Vietnam on Friday, capping a week-long, five-country tour, after stops in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia. Before the first leg of his trip, he expressed hope that his visits around the region would “include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”
But at least publicly, Pompeo found little purchase for his tough talk on Beijing. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi demurred from calling out China after Pompeo gave a speech explicitly attacking China over its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and the ongoing rights abuses in Xinjiang. Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated plainly on Wednesday, after talking with Pompeo, that “Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs.”
Analysts say Pompeo may have found a more amenable audience in Hanoi, where he marked 25 years of normalized relations and met with Vietnamese leaders, including Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and Minister of Public Security To Lam.
“From America’s perspective Vietnam is an important country for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow with the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yosof Ishak Institute. “I believe that Vietnam also considers the visit important, because it helps to cement gains in strategic cooperation in recent years, and that will help Vietnam hedge against any uncertainties that may come up if there’s a change of administration in the U.S.”
Vietnam and China regularly butt heads over the South China Sea. China claims nearly the entirety of the waters there under the basis of “historic rights,” and frequently sends its coastguard and state-backed survey ships into Vietnamese waters or around Vietnamese-occupied land features to assert its claims. China has kept a coastguard presence at Vanguard Bank, a submerged feature off Vietnam’s southern coast within that country’s maritime boundaries and near some active oil fields, for months on end.
As Pompeo met with Prime Minister Phuc he said: “We look forward to continuing to work together to build on our relationship and to make the region – throughout Southeast Asia, Asia and the Indo-Pacific – safe and peaceful and prosperous.”
Phuc said he seeks “sincere cooperation” between both sides in support of a peaceful region.
Pompeo tweeted after his meeting with To Lam that they discussed regional security cooperation in the South China Sea and Mekong region – where China’s damming of the mighty river is of growing concern to downstream nations like Vietnam which rely on those waters for fishing and agriculture. “Together, we are elevating the U.S.-Vietnam security partnership,” Pompeo said in his Tweet, without giving further details.
The U.S. currently cooperates with Vietnam principally in maritime security, selling second-hand ships to Vietnam’s coastguard agencies. It also signed a memorandum of understanding in July on a new training facility in Vietnam focused on combatting illegal fishing.
Although Vietnam adheres to a strict policy against military alliances and any foreign military presence on its soil, Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, believes the U.S. may ask to fly maritime patrol aircraft out of Vietnamese territory. A similar request recently made to Indonesia was reportedly rebuffed.
Hiep said the U.S. and Vietnam have an “increasingly convergent strategic interest” and closer, more overt defense cooperation is possible in the future. “It depends on the level of threat perception Vietnam has regarding China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. Vietnam may not allow the U.S. to fly its aircraft in Vietnam at the moment, but if China continues to behave aggressively in the South China Sea that’s totally possible.”
But it’s not all smooth sailing in U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Pompeo’s stopover was only confirmed by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, raising questions about what may have prompted the impromptu visit. Thayer suggested the last-minute arrangements may have been related to “testy discussions” a U.S. delegation had with Prime Minister Phuc earlier this week.
That was reportedly in response to an Oct. 2 announcement from the U.S. Trade Representative on an investigation into Vietnam for allegedly devaluing its currency on purpose to boost exports abroad – calling it “unfair currency practices,” or currency manipulation – as well as for illegal timber-harvesting. The Trump administration has bristled at the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam, which totaled $54.5 billion in 2019.
Phuc refuted the charge at a meeting with a U.S. delegation on Monday, telling the U.S. to “have a more objective assessment of the reality in Vietnam,” Reuters reported.
Thayer believes the two sides are trying to work past this, with the U.S. starting to invest more in Vietnam’s energy sector and Vietnam committing to purchasing more liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
Pompeo already announced an energy cooperation deal at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum on Wednesday that would see U.S. energy firm AES Corporation partner with Vietnam’s state oil company, PetroVietnam, to develop a liquified natural gas terminal and power plant in Vietnam, worth roughly $2.8 billion.
Thayer and Le Thu both think the trade tensions are a paramount issue for Vietnam.
“There is a core among Vietnam’s leadership that distrusts the United States. They rankle at the [United States’ Trade Representative] investigations into allegations of currency manipulation and Vietnam’s involvement in the illegal timber trade,” Thayer said.
“Vietnam insists on reciprocity in its relations with the United States. If, for example, Vietnam gives the green light to U.S. investment in its energy sector in order to reduce the trade imbalance, Vietnam also expects to get something of equivalent value in return. Specifically, Vietnam wants the U.S. to grant it market economy status, restore its status as a developing country, and remove tariffs on shrimp, catfish and aluminum and steel,” he said.