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Why the US-Vietnam strategic alliance in the South China Sea is unlikely to last

The US and Vietnam are strange bedfellows, with no common culture, ideology, political system or world view, united for now by the ‘China threat’. But with US freedom of navigation operations challenging Vietnam’s claims along with China’s and no deep trust between the two, how long can the alliance last?

Last week, as the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group sailed through Vietnam’s territorial waters en route to a rare port call in Da Nang, knowledgeable high-level defence officials on both sides must have swallowed their pride and bit their tongues.

The visit was symbolic of a confluence of contemporary strategic concerns regarding China’s increasing assertiveness. But at base, the two make rather strange bedfellows and reality is likely to scupper their strategic hopes and plans.To combat the “China threat”, the US strategy is to “redouble [its] commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners that share respect for sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law”, as set out in its 2017 national security strategy.This strategy is intended to implement its grand vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. According to then US national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the core principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise and open markets, and the freedom and independence of all nations.

As for Vietnam, because of its disputes with China over territory and maritime space in the South China Sea, it has become to some observers the most anti-China and pro-US military presence member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indeed, it clearly welcomes and supports the US military presence and has been appealing to the US to balance China’s influence in the region. Accordingly, Vietnam has proclaimed a policy of “diversification and multilateralisation” of relations with the major power.

Both are trying to take advantage of each other’s concerns with China.However, the hypocritical hoopla surrounding the port call was symbolic of the shakiness of the strategic relationship. Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, must have nearly choked when he said Vietnam has been “quite vocal and supportive” of US freedom of navigation operations.

The reality is that Vietnam does not share the core tenet of a free and open Indo-Pacific – unfettered freedom of navigation for warships. Vietnam has long had restrictions for warships to enter its territorial waters – similar to China’s. In particular, Vietnam has both a territorial sea baseline and a prior notification regime that have been the direct target of US freedom of navigation operations with warships in the recent past.

The US challenges to prior permission for warships to undertake innocent passage in territorial waters around the Paracels are directed not only at China but also at Vietnam, which also claims them. Further, the US does not recognise Vietnam’s claims to Spratly features that are not above water at high tide and presumably opposes their militarisation, just as it does the same by China.

Indeed, the US position is that Vietnam’s claims violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – that constitution of the ocean which is ratified by some 167 parties but not the self-appointed enforcer-in-chief, the US.

Apparently for this port call, either Vietnam did not explicitly require such prior notification for innocent passage through its territorial sea or the US did not explicitly acquiesce – or both. The issue was swept under the rug. But this clash of legal interpretations and policies regarding freedom of navigation is symptomatic of the more fundamental strategic mismatch between the two.

Of course, both want to use each other against China. According to Australian expert Carlyle Thayer, granting the port call is an indication that Vietnam supports the presence of the US navy “as long as it contributes to peace and stability” – meaning as long as it deters China.

But since the positions of Vietnam and China on freedom of navigation are similar, the US naval operations in the South China Sea – particularly the freedom of navigation operations – against China also undermine Vietnam’s maritime claims and policies.

In reality, Vietnam and the US do not trust each the other – for good reasons on both sides – and that makes building a firm and lasting strategic relationship unlikely

Nevertheless, Vietnam hopes that enhanced defence relations with the US will deter China from further “bullying”. The US hopes that its access to Vietnam’s ports will replace its places in the Philippines, supporting its effort to militarily deter and contain China and maintain its regional hegemony.

That is the essence of their “strategic relations”. There is no commonality of culture, ideology, political system or world view – other than the “China threat” – and even that is questionable from Vietnam’s standpoint.

Vietnam and China continue to have strong party-to-party and economic relations, and seem to have reached a modus vivendi –albeit shaky and tense – regarding their South China Sea disputes. While Vietnam’s position may seem to be anti-China and pro-US, this is likely to be ephemeral.

Indeed, it seems doubtful that Vietnam’s leadership really wants to side with the US – a declining power – against China, its permanent neighbour and inexorably rising regional and world power.Vietnam’s leaders well know that China will always be there – an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders – while US presence in the region is comparatively fickle and fleeting. Moreover Vietnam is steadfastly non-aligned. Indeed, its long-standing policy is the “three nos” – no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no reliance on one country to fight against another.

Despite US hopes, that is not likely to change soon. In reality, Vietnam and the US do not trust each the other – for good reasons on both sides – and that makes building a firm and lasting strategic relationship unlikely.

The point is that this port call and their supposedly budding strategic relationship are a superficial realist charade that has no roots and can easily evaporate as the strategic situation evolves.

By Mark J. Valencia – The South China Morning Post – March 13, 2020

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