Toward A U.S.-Vietnamese Strategic Partnership: Enhancing Defense Relations

By Lewis Stern

Cooperation in the U.S.-Vietnam bi-lateral relationship has expanded in recent years. Here sailors in both navies participate in training on the USS John S. McCain in Da Nang. Source: #PACOM's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s upcoming visit to Vietnam in early June is a prime opportunity to build on several years of efforts to add strategic depth to the bilateral defense relationship.  The Vietnamese have signed a framework agreement with the United States that defines the basis for closer defense cooperation in areas such as peacekeeping, humanitarian disaster relief, maritime security and search and rescue. They have also taken steps to develop dialogue between defense universities and research institutes.

In anticipation of Panetta’s two day visit, the Vietnamese have asked themselves three questions: What more must Vietnam do to speed up military relations with the United States? What are the advantages and disadvantages for Vietnam of establishing a strategic partnership with the Americans?  How will other countries, and especially China, react?  The United States and Vietnam need to answer these questions in a way that nudges the defense relationship to the next level.

Sensitive Issues: For Vietnam to deflect confrontation by suggesting that the issues of human rights and religious freedom are sovereign matters and not critical to the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is precisely the way to insure that they end up prohibiting further progress in bilateral relations.  Instead, the Vietnamese should recognize the importance of these issues as quality of life matters, take credit for Vietnam’s commitment to these standards, and acknowledge the need to talk about our differences of views.

Speeding Up the Process: The key to moving ahead is a willingness to press beyond existing parameters and policies, and chip away at long-standing limits on joint activities.  The United States understands that there are operational limits to Vietnam’s resources and ability to take advantage of opportunities to enhance defense cooperation, but these should not be allowed to deter actions that could create the basis for a defense partnership.  Equally important is a willingness on the part of both sides to turn attention to defense reform, professional military education, standards of conduct, and civil-military relations as the bilateral defense relationship begins to focus on building military capabilities.

These issues will eventually have to become an integral part of the bilateral dialogue not merely because of the legislative requirements and end user obligations that are a part of U.S. International Military and Education Training and Foreign Military Financing programs. The United States and Vietnam also need to acknowledge that a real partnership requires that our two countries speak to each other about enhancing the military relationship in a way that includes discussion of these issues.

Partnership Costs and Benefits: In a partnership, both countries will have to come to the table with significant resources and a willingness to dedicate the time necessary for dialogue, consultation, and cooperation.  Both sides would require a dedicated cadre of defense professionals charged with the responsibility of nurturing new ideas and sustaining the working level institutional communication necessary to keep the relationship moving forward. Both sides would have to cooperate on the strategic communication necessary to telegraph the right image of this bilateral partnership to interested regional friends and global actors.  This is a massive investment of resources at a difficult time for both systems, yet the dividends that will derive from closer defense cooperation will serve both U.S. and Vietnamese national and regional interests.

Possible International Reactions: The region and its friends would likely support a strategic pairing between the United States and Vietnam, especially after Vietnam has demonstrated its commitment to being a good regional citizen and its capacity for leadership.  Clarifying goals for this partnership and articulating the principles underlying strategic cooperation could assure concerned countries, including China, so that public reactions to enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese defense relations might be more reasonable even if private concerns are stated more stringently. 

To construct a robust and effective bilateral relationship, American defense policy toward Vietnam is in need of a fundamental overhaul.  A framework for an emerging strategic partnership has already been laid, and could be made more vigorous with a series of new initiatives, including arms sales and high-level strategic dialogue.

One way of achieving the critical mass necessary to nudge Vietnam in this direction will entail a commitment by the United States to helping the Vietnamese military become a modern force prepared to confront new 21st century challenges with current equipment.  It will also require helping Vietnam adopting procedures that are the foundation for interoperability with the United States and regional friends and partners, and standards of behavior that are the hallmarks of a professional military force.

The United States can kick start this process by funding tailored training packages in logistics, services, transportation, and facilities support to international organizations, humanitarian response to civil and natural incidents, peacekeeping, and the roles, missions, and responsibilities of the military in international combined military efforts.

Dr. Lewis M. Stern served 10 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, and for 20 years as a Southeast Asian specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  He now teaches about contemporary Vietnam at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.

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