The relation between the United States and Viet Nam has been reinvigorated in the recent times and that has led to an extraordinary level mutual exchange. Both countries have had a tempestuous past with scars of the war. This rapprochement accompanied with Viet Nam’s efforts to work with the Asia-Pacific countries like Japan and India speaks volumes about Viet Nam’s concern over Chinese assertive superiority mainly in the South China Sea and due to these dynamics, the relations between the United States of America and Viet Nam are now in a new era of stronger relations. The article traces the reasons for the ‘new changes within the dynamics’ between the United States of America and Vietnam which stems the possibility of the formation of a ‘United States-led coalition with the Quad countries and Viet Nam Axis’ in the Indo-Pacific region.
According to the 2019 Defence White Paper of Viet Nam, it considers itself as a“maritime nation which pays special attention to the safety and protection of the seas along with commitment towards the freedom of navigation and overflight”. They also aim for free trade and peaceful economic activities in accordance with international law. For the United States, the importance of Viet Nam is based on the fact that it is a Southeast Asian nation, a maritime power and in a tussle with China in the South China Sea. Therefore, the United States finds Viet Nam to be the most suitable candidate for their South and Southeast Asian strategy where China’s maritime dominance and its efforts to emerge as a maritime hegemonic power needs to be dealt with. Also, the U.S knows very well that apart from China, Viet Nam has been considered the most dangerous maritime power as it has taken China on in the South China Sea.
The U.S. has been amazed by the sheer courage that Viet Nam has shown to tackle Chinese aggression.The 2019 Defence White Paper also clearly reflects Viet Nam’s fear from Chinese encroachment as it mentions about the destabilizing elements in the region which threatens the stability, peace and prosperity in the South China Sea and East Sea according to Viet Nam. Though, the white paper avoids calling out any countries name, but it does mention that the “new developments in the East Sea like the unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarization, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.” Therefore, it is a clear reference to China without actually naming it. Viet Nam faces multiple challenges from China in the South China Sea of threat from militarised artificial islands and the test deployments of capabilities from these island facilities. Viet Nam has become active in the economic operations within the claimed exclusive economic zone and its continental shelf and has been repetitively challenged by China which has resulted in the withdrawal of some oil and gas exploration projects like the demand to cease the exploration operation with Repsol in 2017 and the most recent standoff around the Vanguard Bank.
The United States of America understands Viet Nam’s importance in the multipolar world and knows how Viet Nam can be an integral part of the Indo-Pacific strategy of countering Chinese maritime dominance. Viet Nam too agrees with this fact and the 2019 Defence White paper is proof of that where it assesses the global situation which has been rapidly evolving into a multipolar order. The region of Southeast Asia continues to be a dynamic part of the Asia-Pacific region due to its increasingly important geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic location making it a battleground among the great powers and it also mentioned the various foreign initiatives of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) and India’s Look East Policy (LEP) now Act East Policy (AEP). Viet Nam has been making efforts to build good ties with Australia, India and Japan and other partners of the United States keeping the Free and Indo-Pacific concept and strategy in mind. In March 2018, they signed a new strategic partnership and 2019 during Prime Minister Morrison’s visit recognised each other’s importance as bilateral as well as Indo-Pacific partners globally. Both countries expressed their serious concerns in the developments of the South China Sea especially the long-standing oil and gas issues and condemned Chinese behaviour of violating the International law in particular UNCLOS. Viet Nam’s relations with India are based on a comprehensive strategic partnership which entails both these nations to build closer maritime security cooperation and work towards oil and gas explorations. India has been training fighter pilots from Viet Nam and has been in talks to sell surface-to-air missiles. Both the countries have had joint naval exercises. Viet Nam’s relations with Japan have significantly expanded through strategic links in the last five years. These expanded ties include regular Japanese port visits to Viet Nam and Japan has been assisting Vietnam in maritime security and defence industrial cooperation. Viet Nam has been building closer relations with all three close partners of the U.S and by doing this is paving itself a position of being a networking security forum where all the regional powers combine which would help each of these countries come together and align against their common cause of threat, China.
Viet Nam was recently invited by the United States to participate in the Indo-Pacific teleconference on the COVID-19. Viet Nam was the only non-Quad member invited to this teleconferencing. Though, it can be said that since Viet Nam has been the Chair for ASEAN this year maybe that’s why it was invited by the United States. On the contrary, the new changing dynamics in the relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam clearly highlights the importance of Viet Nam’s contribution in dealing with China in the Southeast Asian region especially as a maritime partner. Viet Nam is known to have the strongest standing army and maritime force in Southeast Asia which is also beneficial in a situation of crisis in the region. Viet Nam’s relations with Japan Australia and India pave way for a multi-lateral dimension in its diplomacy which ultimately benefits the U.S. and due to all these inter-twined relations; Viet Nam has indirectly become a part of the Quad and so, there is a possible formation of a U.S. led coalition with Quad countries and Vietnam Axis in the Indo-Pacific region.