By: Murray Hiebert

Vietnam and the US are also stepping up political and security cooperation. They hold two annual defense dialogues at the vice-ministerial level and work together in such areas as maritime security, military medicine, disaster response, and search and rescue. Vietnam will receive five to six new patrol vessels from the US each year over the next several years to boost its maritime domain awareness.  

Last October, Washington partially lifted its ban on the sale of weapons to Hanoi, which had been in force since the end of the war, to help Vietnam boost maritime security. Six months later, Hanoi has not ordered any US hardware under the new rules, as it apparently labors to understand the complexities of buying weapons systems from the US. Washington would also be interested in increasing naval cooperation beyond one port call with three ships each year, but Vietnam appears reluctant to expand these operations in an effort to avoid irritating China.

At the political level, the US secretary of state and Vietnamese foreign minister meet each year to monitor progress in their comprehensive partnership. The two governments also hold regular discussions on human rights, the biggest obstacle holding the US government back from deepening ties. Washington’s assessment that freedom of religion and expression had improved in recent years made it possible for the administration to make a case to Congress to partially lift the ban on weapons sales.

Educational and cultural cooperation are also increasing between the two nations. Today there are 16,000 Vietnamese students studying in the US, more than from any other nation in Southeast Asia. Congress has approved nearly US$18 million to establish a private, nonprofit Fulbright University with an independent board of governors in cooperation with the Vietnamese government in an effort to boost country’s university education. 

The two countries are also tackling the devastating legacies of their long war. Hanoi has long helped Washington look for servicemen still missing in Vietnam, and the US has begun assisting the Vietnamese search for the remains of their missing. Washington is also helping clean up dioxin remaining from the use of the Agent Orange defoliant, linked to birth defects and cancer, according to scientists. The US has spent more than US$65 million to clean up the airport in central Vietnam and is beginning work on a former military base just north of Ho Chi Minh City. 

The strategic interests of Washington and Hanoi are closely aligned on the South China Sea. Both call for the preservation of freedom of navigation and support a rules-based, diplomatic approach to resolving the territorial disputes with China. Vietnam welcomes the increased US security presence and intelligence activities in the disputed sea.

China’s placement of the oil rig off the coast of Vietnam last year served as a wakeup call for Vietnam’s leaders. It helped resolve, at least for now, the debate between those who want to stick with their communist allies in Beijing and those arguing for moving closer to US as a hedge against China.

Despite the pace of rapprochement between the US and Vietnam, the Vietnamese have limits on how far they are willing to go in deepening their defense ties with the Americans.  Sharing a long border, 1280 kilometers, and several millennia of history with its giant neighbor, Vietnam – like its Southeast Asian neighbors – is trying to balance relations and avoid having to choose between China and the US.

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. He wrote this for YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization