By Greg Poling
On August 1, U.S. Navy Surgeon General Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson Jr. and Vietnam’s Military Medical Director Colonel Vu Quoc Binh signed a Statement of Intent (SOI) on Military Medical Cooperation in Hanoi. The statement itself appeared almost routine, promising to institutionalize cooperation in military medicine through exchanges of experts, joint research, and various other mechanisms. So why does an innocuous military medical agreement matter? The signing would have passed virtually unreported except for one technicality – the SOI marks the first official military to military relationship between the United States and Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975 and could result in an actual American military presence in Vietnam.
Given that the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries have steadily increased their cooperation in recent years, it is tempting to believe that the only difference in this latest move was the official signing ceremony. In a sense, that is true. Less than a month ago, on July 15, the two nations’ navies held joint training exercises in non-combat capabilities, including navigation and search and rescue. Numerous U.S. ships, including aircraft carriers and the 7th Fleet’s flagship Blue Ridge, have made calls and received repairs in Vietnamese ports over the last three years.
What sets last week’s SOI apart from prior military to military activities is what it indicates about the U.S. commitment to enhanced relations. Vice Admiral Robinson did not just promise to hold a joint exercise or a series of training missions, but rather to establish an ongoing partnership with Vietnam’s military. It is a far cry from the close relationship the United States has with treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines, or even with strategic partners like Singapore, but it is a necessary and important start.
When Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Schapiro and Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister Pham Binh Minh met at the 4th U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue in June, they vowed to work toward a strategic partnership between the two nations. The key term is “partnership”. They were laying out a vision for a more robust and institutionalized relationship, much as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates did in his visit to Hanoi last October. The new SOI should be seen in light of this effort. To date, the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries have engaged each other only episodically and with a sense of caution.. Now there will be a basis, however narrowly defined, on which a deeper sense of trust and familiarity can develop. This is in Vietnam’s interests for many reasons, not least of which is the boost that future technology and skills transfers will give to Vietnam’s modernizing military as it strives to keep pace with its neighbors, especially China.
In addition to signing the SOI, Vice Admiral Robinson floated the notion of transferring the Naval Medical Research Unit Number 2 (NAMRU-2) to Vietnam. The U.S. would like to see the unit, which was based in Indonesia until 2010 and currently operates out of Hawaii, back in Asia. Such a move would likely require years if it ever happens, but the mere suggestion reveals the desire of both sides to develop a more consistent and robust relationship. University of New South Wales’ Carlyle Thayer has highlighted the significance of allowing U.S. military personnel to be based in Vietnam. The U.S. Navy is not in the habit of building and maintaining expensive facilities in a country with which it does not foresee a long-term relationship. NAMRU-2 includes satellite facilities in Cambodia and Singapore, disease surveillance teams in Thailand and Laos, and partnerships with the University of Malaya Medical Center and Malaysia’s ministries of defence and health. To consider basing the hub of such a region-wide engagement network in Vietnam speaks volumes to the importance the United States places on its growing relationship with Hanoi.
Greg Poling is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, covering Vietnam.