The expected signing of a memorandum of understanding to resolve war legacy issues during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Vietnam will go a long way in developing bilateral defence ties.
Since their normalisation in 1995, Vietnam-US relations have improved significantly, especially in the economic domain. The US is now the largest export market and one of the most important sources of foreign investment for Vietnam. Since 2018, bilateral economic ties have further strengthened, thanks in part to the US-China trade war which led to trade and investment diversion from China to some regional countries, including Vietnam. In the first quarter of 2021, for example, Vietnam’s exports to the US reached US$21.2 billion, a 32.5 per cent year-on-year increase. Investment from American firms like Apple and Intel, together with their suppliers, have also been essential to Vietnam’s efforts to strengthen its export performance and manufacturing base.
While the economic aspect of bilateral relations has developed apace, defence and security ties remain modest and lack substance. A major obstacle to deepening defence ties is Vietnam’s wish to maintain a strategic balance between the US and China, and concerns that China will respond aggressively if Vietnam moves too close to the US. At the same time, lingering distrust of the US among certain segments of the Vietnamese leadership is still constraining bilateral ties. This trust deficit derives from multiple factors, including the two countries’ past animosity and the differences in their political systems. Another possible reason for Vietnam to drag its feet on bilateral defence ties may be its wish to extract concessions from America in addressing long-standing war legacy issues.
The visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Vietnam, which starts this afternoon, will likely play a significant role in addressing this trust deficit and war legacy issues between the two countries, thereby paving the way for stronger defence cooperation in the future.
In line with the overall agenda of his trip, which also includes stops in Singapore and the Philippines, Secretary Austin is expected to re-emphasise with Vietnamese leaders the Biden administration’s commitment to ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular. This will be done with a view to enlisting Vietnam’s support for America’s efforts to counter the expanding strategic influence of China.
Towards this end, Secretary Austin will likely reconfirm America’s commitment to “respect Vietnam’s political system”, a code phrase for America’s promise not to interfere in Vietnam’s domestic politics or seek regime change in the country. The different political systems of the two countries and America’s traditional support for democracy and liberal values have long been a source of concern for some Vietnamese leaders, who fear that a stronger relationship with America will undermine the Communist Party of Vietnam’s grip on power. Due to this concern, some of them also prefer to maintain strong ties with China, a putative ideological ally, rather than with the United States. Washington’s repeated commitment to respect Hanoi’s political interests, which was first mentioned in the two countries’ announcement of a comprehensive partnership in 2013, is therefore key to Washington’s efforts to reassure Vietnamese leaders of its goodwill and friendly, sincere intention in strengthening bilateral ties.
Secretary Austin will likely reconfirm America’s commitment to “respect Vietnam’s political system”, a code phrase for America’s promise not to interfere in Vietnam’s domestic politics or seek regime change in the country.
Further evidence of America’s efforts to build trust with Vietnam can be found in the expected signing, during Mr Austin’s visit, of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to address the war legacy issue between the two countries. The MOU will provide the legal basis for America to assist Vietnam in locating, identifying and recovering the remains of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers who fell during the Vietnam War and are still listed as missing in action (MIA). Forty-six years after the war ended, this issue still carries great emotional significance for Vietnam, especially the families of the unaccounted-for soldiers. However, addressing the issue presents Vietnam with significant challenges, mainly due to its lack of information and resources. With the signing of the MOU, the US is expected to provide Vietnam with relevant technologies, including advanced DNA analysis capabilities, and access to millions of American war documents in its archives both in Washington and elsewhere, to better locate and identify Vietnam’s MIAs.
It should be noted that although America considered Vietnam’s unconditional cooperation on resolving the American prisoner of war (POW) and MIA issues as preconditions for bilateral normalisation in the 1990s, Washington has been rather slow in reciprocating Hanoi’s request for help with its own MIA issue. However, after years of delays, Washington has now found stronger motivations to finally help Vietnam with this issue.
The US decision, while mainly based on humanitarian considerations, is also driven by strategic calculations. Viewing Vietnam as a key partner in countering China’s strategic thrust into Southeast Asia, the US is highly interested in securing stronger defence ties with Vietnam, such as gaining greater access to Vietnam’s military facilities, engaging Vietnam in military exercises, or selling weapons to Vietnam. Helping Vietnam with the MIA issue will remove an obstacle of strong political symbolism to bilateral defence cooperation.
The signing of the MOU, together with America’s previous agreements to help with other war legacy issues Vietnam is facing, such as the cleanup of unexploded ordnance and dioxin, will further contribute to the two former enemies’ reconciliation and the building of mutual trust. This, in turn, will pave the way for them to conduct more substantive and meaningful defence cooperation activities in the future. The signing of the MOU may therefore be one of the most important outcomes of Secretary Austin’s visit to Vietnam today.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.