Aircraft carrier visit elevates Vietnam-US ties: experts

By Viet Anh   March 11, 2020 | 06:31 pm PT
Aircraft carrier visit elevates Vietnam-US ties: experts
Aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt docks in Vietnam's central city of Da Nang for a five day visit on March 5-9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong.
American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt's recent visit to Vietnam has strengthened bilateral relations and opportunities for security cooperation, experts said.

"The second aircraft carrier visit signifies the positive development in U.S.-Vietnam relations," said Dr Olli Pekka Suorsa, a research fellow in the Maritime Security Program, the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Since President Donald Trump's November 2017 visit to Vietnam, strategic dialogues, high-level visits and naval port calls as well as capacity building assistance have followed, he said.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the central city of Da Nang for a five-day visit on March 5, only the second visit to Vietnam by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War ended in 1975 after one by the USS Carl Vinson in March 2018.

During their stay in Da Nang, officers and crews of the carrier and its escorts attended various meetings and events, played sports with their Vietnamese naval counterparts and took part in community activities.

"There is clearly a positive momentum in the U.S.-Vietnam strategic relationship, one which is likely perpetuated by shared threat perception in relation to China," Suorsa said.

"The carrier visit demonstrates U.S. support to Vietnam's resolve in the South China Sea and is a signal to Hanoi of Washington's interest to deepen strategic relationship further."

Tuan Luc, a PhD Candidate at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the visit helps further diversify the ties between the two nations, which have been getting better and better in various fields, especially security and defense.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, an American government-funded think tank, said, "What the second visit means is that both sides want to symbolically demonstrate to China that their security relationship is getting closer because of Beijing’s bad behavior in the South China Sea, most recently following the latest China-Vietnam standoff at Vanguard Bank."

He was referring to an event last year when Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and escorts repeatedly trespassing onto Vietnam's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in the southern part of the sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.

"I believe the timing is also perfect to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations."

Vietnam and the U.S. have undertaken many activities to enhance security and defense cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made a three-day visit to Vietnam last November, when he said Washington was committed to upholding a rules-based order and promoting peace, stability, cooperation, and development in the Indo-Pacific region, supporting the right of each nation to exploit resources in their respective exclusive economic zones.

Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told reporters last Friday that the U.S. would offer Vietnam a second Hamilton-class coast guard cutter. It gave one in 2017.

"We are transferring our second Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese this year to help build their capacity for maritime security, and we look forward to providing other critical capabilities such as the Shark boats and other requested items from the Vietnamese," Aquilino said.

In 2018 and 2019 the U.S. had transferred 12 Metal Shark patrol boats to Vietnam, plus other equipment, for $32 million.

In June last year Senior Lieutenant Dang Duc Toai became the first Vietnamese to graduate from the U.S. Air Force’s Aviation Leadership Program, which offers partners and developing countries undergraduate pilot training scholarships.

A new level of relationship

Crew members stand aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it docks in Da Nang for a visit between March 5-9, 2020. Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Consulate in HCMC.

Crew members stand aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it docks in Da Nang for a visit between March 5-9, 2020. Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Consulate in HCMC.

Suorsa of the RSIS expects U.S. vessels to make more frequent port calls in Vietnam hereafter, and "this creates an extended deterrence effect, something Vietnam’s omnidirectional defense diplomacy has sought to achieve in its simultaneous engagement of multiple friendly militaries in the region and outside."

For the U.S., having more frequent access to Vietnam’s ports, short of any actual basing, would become ever more important, especially, if Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte follows through with his threats to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S., he said.

"Losing assured and easy access to the Philippines, the U.S. needs to find alternative points of access in the region, and Vietnam looms large in this calculation. Thus, calling port at Da Nang, the U.S. aircraft carrier’s visit signifies the U.S.’s continued interest to seek to support or court countries with shared concerns on China’s assertiveness in the region, demonstrate to Hanoi that it has international support, as well as to prove that it is not completely reliant on basing in the Philippines and has alternative options for regional access."

Vietnam took over as chairman of ASEAN for a one-year term last November at a critical time in security developments in the South China Sea, he said.

The U.S. is likely to throw its support behind Vietnam’s chairmanship and push strongly for another joint naval exercise with ASEAN following the inaugural one in 2019, he said.

"What we will see in bilateral maritime security cooperation is probably slightly stepped-up engagement, including low-key training and exercises as well as continued capacity building assistance."

Luc agreed there would be more U.S. port calls in Vietnam in future since the Philippines’s cancelation of the VFA poses a big challenge to the U.S.’s ability to maintain a military presence in the region as well as to its Indo-Pacific strategy, which has been described by the U.S. as "an ironclad and enduring commitment to" a region that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian subcontinent.

Under this strategy, Washington will strengthen activities like port calls and maritime drills with an eye on freedom of navigation and cooperate with regional countries both bilaterally and multilaterally.

Washington also identifies common interests with ASEAN member countries.

Aircraft take off on USS Theodore Roosevelt as it docks off Da Nang for a visit between March 5-9, 2020. Video courtesy of the U.S. General Consulate in HCMC.

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