By Phuong Nguyen
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta June 3 made a historic visit to Cam Ranh Bay, site of the United States’ naval base during the Vietnam War, becoming the most senior U.S. official to do so since the war ended. The visit took place in observance of an agreement between the United States and Vietnam to exchange visits by defense ministers every three years. Panetta said his trip was meant to improve defense relations between the two sides. He then traveled to Hanoi, where he was received by his Vietnamese counterpart, Phung Quang Thanh. The two exchanged war artifacts and agreed to open three search sites for missing U.S. servicemen.
For Vietnam, which has been reluctant to foster military-to-military ties with the United States, inviting Panetta to Cam Ranh was a bold step. Thanh said friendly, stable, and comprehensive defense relations with the United States are in the common interests of both countries as well as regional peace and stability in the Asia Pacific. In that vein, he encouraged U.S. logistical and technical vessels to call at Vietnam’s commercial ports. The two ministers agreed to take the bilateral defense relationship to a new level, with Panetta saying, “We have a complicated relationship but we’re not bound by that history.” Panetta did, however, reiterate that any further U.S. military assistance will be contingent upon human rights improvements by Vietnam.
Panetta’s visit is a vivid symbol of how much U.S.-Vietnamese ties have strengthened just 17 years after the two normalized relations. For the United States, access to the Cam Ranh facility could become an important aspect of the U.S.–Vietnam relationship. In combination with Singapore’s Changi and the Philippines’ Subic Bay, Cam Ranh could bolster the U.S. Navy’s access to the South China Sea and support its efforts to protect freedom of navigation in those waters. By inviting Panetta to visit Cam Ranh, Vietnam reinforced the message it first sent when it opened the port to U.S. ship visits in 2009: it welcomes U.S. involvement in the maritime affairs of the South China Sea.Of course, obstacles remain to deeper military cooperation. Most important is Vietnam’s human rights record, which even those in Washington eager for closer ties recognize presents a clear ceiling to what can be realistically accomplished in the short term. Vietnamese leaders nevertheless call on the United States to continue its leadership in the region and want to expand bilateral cooperation, including in maritime security, trade, and economics.
In response to Hanoi’s unprecedented goodwill, Washington could continue to step up defense cooperation where possible, including by continuing high-level visits and exchanges, increasing joint exercises, offering military education and training to Vietnamese officers, jointly addressing the consequences of war, and coordinating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The nascent U.S.–Vietnam defense relationship is promising yet delicate, and needs time for mutual trust and understanding to develop.
Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a research intern with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program covering Vietnam.