Why wouldn’t Vietnam want US warships in their waters?Mar 14, 2021
The myth that Vietnam supports a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is based on the false perception of Vietnam as the US’s deputy in South-East Asia. It is time we recognise Vietnam’s autonomy, and respect that they are just as pragmatic as the US or China.
A recent piece published by East Asia Forum perpetuates the myth that Vietnam supports the core tenet of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – unfettered freedom of navigation. Vietnam has long had restrictions for warships to enter its territorial waters – similar to those of China. In particular, Vietnam has both a territorial sea baseline and a prior notification regime that have been the direct target of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) with warships in the recent past.
Moreover, U.S. challenges of prior permission for warships to undertake innocent passage in territorial waters around the Paracels are directed not only at China but also at Vietnam who also claims them. Further, the U.S. does not recognize Vietnam’s claims to Spratly features that are not naturally above water at high tide and presumably oppose their militarization just as it does those occupied by China. This clash of legal interpretations and policies regarding “freedom of navigation” is symptomatic of the more fundamental strategic mismatch between the two.
Of course, both the US and Vietnam want to use each other against China. That is the end-all and be-all of their “strategic relations”. Vietnam supports the presence of the U.S. Navy “as long as it contributes to peace and stability” – meaning as long as it deters China from “bullying” it.
Vietnam is simply being opportunistic and warming to its former enemy driven purely by self-interest for as long as it is needed. There is no alignment of fundamental interests with the U.S – other than to contain China – and really very little coincidence of values between its Communist authoritarian system and that of the liberal democratic U.S. Moreover, Vietnam is steadfastly non-aligned. Indeed, its long-standing policy is the “three nos” – no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no reliance on one country to fight against another. That is not likely to change significantly.
Vietnam’s pandering to a mortal enemy that has yet to fully atone for what many consider its racially motivated atrocities during the war, is disingenuous, distasteful and unworthy. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of US strategy for the region as well as disrespect for the millions of Vietnamese who suffered and died to reject and eject US ideological and political influence. As Vietnam’s leaders should well know, China will always be ‘there’ – an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders – while the U.S. presence in the region is comparatively fickle and fleeting.
Vietnam and China continue to have strong Party to Party and economic relations and seem to have reached a modus vivendi –albeit shaky and tense – regarding their South China Sea disputes. While Vietnam’s position may seem to be currently anti-China, pro-U.S., this is likely to be ephemeral. Indeed, it seems doubtful that Vietnam’s leadership will truly side long term with the U.S. – a declining power – against China – its permanent neighbour and inexorably rising regional and world power.