US-Vietnam Security Cooperation: Development and Prospects

cntv | 作者: Xin Qiang | 时间: 2015-05-11 | 责编: 李敏捷
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Xin Qiang[1]


Given the increasingly intense Sino-American strategic dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region and Sino-Vietnamese disputes over the South China Sea, the United States and Vietnam are gradually promoting a “comprehensive cooperative partnership” driven by realistic benefits. Progress on US-Vietnam security cooperation not only affects the two countries’ strategic military plans, but also exerts considerable influence on the overall geostrategic environment in the South China Sea region. As such, a comprehensive analysis of US-Vietnam security cooperation is critical to gaining an accurate assessment of the regional security situation.


Progress on US-Vietnam Security Cooperation


After the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1995, the US-Vietnam relationship has made substantial political, diplomatic and economic progress. That said, their cooperation in the security field is far from smooth. In recent years, the United States has paid increasingly close attention to the Asia-Pacific region. The United States intends to intensify its military presence in East Asia by deepening its security cooperation with “partners” such as Vietnam, ultimately with the goal of strategically balancing China’s rise. Against this geostrategic backdrop and based on the two countries’ respective strategic needs, the US-Vietnam relationship has made substantial progress in the fields of military and security. 


Continuously Expanding Cooperation

In October 1996, the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Kurt Campbell, visited Vietnam to commence a dialogue on bilateral defense relations and regional security issues. In 2000, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen paid a visit to Vietnam, marking the first visit of a United States Secretary of Defense to Vietnam since the Vietnam War. The visit was widely viewed as being an “ice-breaking event” in US-Vietnam military exchange. Afterwards, the United States and Vietnam cautiously carried out a series of fruitful exchanges. On June 8, 2009, United States Assistant Secretary of State Greg Delawei and the Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh issued a joint statement in Washington, claiming that the two sides were engaging in in-depth discussions on intensifying the bilateral military interaction, peace-keeping actions and trainings, humanitarian assistance, maritime navigation security and border security issues.

The two countries have continued to “intensify cooperation, and promote peace, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” [2] In September 2010, the United States allocated funds for the Vietnamese army to upgrade a number of old Huey helicopters. In September 2011, the United States and Vietnam signed a “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to Promote Bilateral Defense Cooperation,” clearly enumerating five areas for close cooperation – namely, maritime security, maritime search and rescue, United Nations peacekeeping actions, humanitarian aid and defense education and research exchanges. In July 2012, the American defense contracting company Lockheed Martin produced Vietnam’s first communications satellite, “VINASAT.” In October 2013, American Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp and the head of Vietnam’s coastguard Nguyen Quang Dam signed an agreement on cooperation in the fields of maritime security, naval ship exchange visits, training cooperation, maritime early warning studies and experience sharing. In December 2013, Secretary of State Kerry visited Vietnam and stated the intention to build a US-Vietnam “New Maritime Partnership.” Kerry offered 18 million USD of aid to Vietnam for 5 high-speed patrol ships to enhance Vietnam’s “off-shore patrolling capacity.”[3]

Nuclear cooperation is another highlight of US-Vietnam expanded security cooperation. In March 2010, the United States Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak and Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Le Dinh Tien signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on nuclear cooperation.

In October 2013, Secretary Kerry and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phan Binh Minh officially signed the “Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.” According to the agreement, the United States plans to share nuclear technologies and fuels with Vietnam, carry out nuclear technological exchanges, and cooperate in the fields of nuclear security and storage. At the same time, American companies such as the GE and Bechtel Corporation will be allowed to export nuclear parts and civil nuclear reactors to Vietnam.


Continuously Enhanced Levels of Cooperation

In November 2003, the United States guided missile destroyer Vandergrift visited the port of Ho Chi Minh. It was the first time that United States warships and soldiers visited Vietnam since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and the visit blazed a path for military exchanges through “Naval Diplomacy.”

In April 2009, Vietnam sent its first delegation to the United States nuclear aircraft carrier John Stennis stationed off the coast of Vietnam. In December, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh visited the United States, and he was taken to visit an American nuclear submarine. In March 2010, the United States depot ship Richard Byrd entered Cam Ranh Bay for a half-month of maintenance, and set a precedent for the United States naval ships to stop at the Cam Ranh Bay. Since Vietnam invited foreign naval forces to use the Cam Ranh Bay naval base “for peaceful uses” in late 2010, the United States naval “non-combat ships” have undergone annual replenishment and maintenance there.

In June 2012, Leon Panetta became the first United States Secretary of Defense to visit the Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War. In his address on the Richard Byrd, anchored at the Cam Ranh Bay, he said: “The United States naval ships’ use of the Cam Ranh Bay facilities is a crucial component of US-Vietnam relations, in which lies great future potential.”[4]

US-Vietnamese military-to-military interaction has taken the form of joint military exercises. In September 2009, the 13th Air Force Division of the United States Pacific Command and the Vietnam People’s Army held their first “humanitarian, search and rescue mission,” calling the mission “Operation Pacific Angel.” It was not only the first time that the American air force visited Vietnam since the Vietnam War, but also the two armies’ first joint military exercise in Vietnam.[5]

At present, the joint search and rescue operation has already become an annual event between the two air forces. In the August 2010, the United States guided missile destroyer John McCain visited Danang, and the two countries held their first “non-combat military”-themed joint maritime search, rescue, and disaster control operation. In July 2011, three American naval ships, including the guided missile destroyer Puri Boolean, visited Vietnam, and the two sides again held a weeklong joint military exercise focused on maritime navigation, repair and maintenance, and navigating techniques.

In April 2012, numerous American naval ships under the Blue Ridge command visited Danang and carried out “non-combat” exchange activities with Vietnam’s naval forces. In July 2012, three United States warships, including the guided missile destroyer Chung-Hoon arrived in the South China Sea and held a weeklong joint military exercise with the Vietnamese navy. Such actions all demonstrate the heightened emphasis on US-Vietnam military exchange and cooperation.

The United States has increased its military funding for Vietnam. In June 2005, the United States started to include Vietnam in its “International Military Education and Training program”(IMET), offering financial support to Vietnam. The relative amount grew rapidly from 196,000 USD in 2009 to 900,000 USD in 2013, and to a projected 1.5 million USD in 2015.[6] In 2009, Vietnam was formally allowed to join the United States’ “External Military Funding Program,” and the United States offered Vietnam half million dollars in fiscal year 2009. The relative amount surged to 9.49 million USD in fiscal year 2013, and will climb to at least 10 million USD in fiscal year 2015.[7] 

The United States has also gradually lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam. In December 2006, the United States revised the “International Arms Trade Treaty” to allow for arms exports to Vietnam of “non-lethal defensive weapons” on a “case-by-case” basis. On October 2, 2014, the United States officially announced that it would partly lift its arms export ban on Vietnam, allowing for the transfer of defensive weapons “related to maritime security.” This marked a significant step for the United States in gradually lifting its arms export embargo on Vietnam.


Gradually Institutionalizing Cooperation

In November 2003, Vietnamese Defense Minister Admiral Pham Van Tra visited the United States, establishing the US-Vietnam defense ministers’ exchange visits mechanism. In recent years, the United States and Vietnam have established a number of mechanisms for bilateral defense cooperation and consultation. In June 2008, the United States and Vietnam held the first round of deputy ministers’ “dialogue on politics, security and defense” in Hanoi, covering wide-ranging issues in security cooperation under their respective foreign ministries.

The dialogue has since taken place annually in either Washington or Hanoi, becoming the first high-level political and security dialogue mechanism between the two countries. On August 17, 2010, the Acting United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Robert Scher and Vietnamese Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh held the first deputy ministers’ “Defense Policy Dialogue” in Hanoi, officially establishing an annual dialogue mechanism between the two countries’ defense departments. In August 2011, the Surgeon General of the United States Navy Adam Robinson and Vietnamese Military Medical Director Colonel Vu Quoc Binh signed a statement of intent (SoI) on military medical cooperation in Hanoi.

This was the first signed military cooperation agreement since the two countries’ normalization of diplomatic ties, and it ushered in an era of official military cooperation between the two countries. In September, during the 2nd US-Vietnam “Defense Policy Dialogue,” the two countries officially signed a “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Defense Cooperation,” reiterating their intention to intensify practical cooperation on maritime security.

In October 2013, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh and Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh agreed that the two sides would maintain communication and strengthen cooperation on issues such as defense and military cooperation, regional security situations, navigation freedom and maritime security.


Motivations for US-Vietnam Security Cooperation


The United States and Vietnam used to be in opposition with one another but have rapidly “resolved their differences.” They have not only managed effective cooperation in areas like politics, diplomacy, economy and trade, but also made consistent breakthroughs in sensitive military and security fields. There are three main reasons why such progress has been made.

First, the United States has drawn Vietnam to its side to execute the so-called “wedge strategy.” As China’s national power has grown rapidly, the United States has increasing doubts and fears over China. This has given rise to a “rebalancing” of the United States’ Asia Pacific strategy, with a fundamental goal being to react to China’s threat to the United States’ strategic benefits and leading position in the Asia Pacific region.

The United States pays special attention to Southeast Asia in its Asia Pacific security plan. Vietnam is an ideal target for the United States to implement a “wedge strategy” in Southeast Asia, primarily because Vietnam and China have had territorial disputes for many years. Vietnam is suspicious and cautious towards China, which has made it possible for the United States to use the two countries’ conflict to divide them.

In addition, Vietnam’s unique geographical position makes it a communication point for safeguarding maritime transportation in the South China Sea. Vietnam is of strategic value to the United States’ control of transportation in the Asia Pacific region and the Indian Ocean, and to its security network in Southeast Asia. Precisely due to the above reasons, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out as early as October 2010 that in order to implement the United States’ Asia Pacific strategy, it would have to intensify security cooperation with “new partners” such as Vietnam, and jointly deal with China’s impact on the regional security structure.[8] During Congressional testimony delivered in March 2011, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell repeatedly emphasized that the United States would take the initiative to expand military contact and security cooperation with “regional partners” such as Vietnam and Indonesia in order to balance China’s ascending military advantages in the South China Sea.[9]

Second, Vietnam is exploiting the United States in an attempt to implement a strategy of “soft balance.” Vietnam’s national memory is full of the historical narrative of “defending against northern Chinese invasion.” Vietnam has deep-rooted fears and cautions regarding a strong China. Considering the historical hatred and conflict of interests, Vietnam tried to forge military alliances with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and fought against China’s strategic pressure through “hard balance.”

After the Soviet Union splintered, the Soviet-Vietnam alliance also fell apart. In recent years, China’s economic and military power has ascended rapidly. Faced with this context, Vietnam adopted a strategic “soft balance” approach rather than military alliance, and used non-military policy tools such as international mechanisms, economic measures and diplomatic arrangements to offset China’s military advantages. [10] Based on this strategy, Vietnam has made efforts to develop bilateral relations with major foreign powers such as the United States, Russia, Japan and India in order to strike a balance between major powers and upgrade its security environment.

The United States is without a doubt the best candidate for Vietnam to implement its “soft balance” strategy. On the one hand, the United States is the only global superpower with unrivalled military strength and a strong military presence in the East Asia region, and it is the only foreign power capable of balancing China.

At the same time, the United States is also anxious about China’s rise, and frequent China-US political, diplomatic and security contradictions have made room for Vietnam to exploit the United States and “balance” China. Under the rebalancing strategy, the United States and Vietnam are making strategic considerations, strengthening political contacts, developing economic and trade relations rapidly, and increasing personnel exchanges, all paving the way for deepening their security cooperation.

Third, spiraling South China Sea disputes also contribute to US-Vietnam cooperation. In recent years, China has intensified its efforts to safeguard its maritime rights. In order to secure its interests in the South China Sea, Vietnam has taken a series of harsh measures. In June 2012, Vietnam enacted its maritime law in an attempt to provide “legal evidence” for its illegal positions. In May 2014, China operated the “981” drilling platform near the Xisha Islands, and Vietnam sent many vessels to disruption China’s drilling.

Such provocations seriously harmed China-Vietnam relations, and Vietnam has become worried about a vigorous counter-blow. According to the public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center in July 2014, Vietnam views China as “the top security threat,” and as many as 84 percent of Vietnamese are worried that territorial disputes will lead to military conflict between China and Vietnam. [11] In face of China’s economic and military strengths, it is natural that the Vietnamese government is seeking to intensify military contact and security cooperation with the United States.

At the same time, worsening South China Sea tensions have given the United States an opportunity to interject itself into South China Sea issues. Recently, the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines echoed one another and severely criticized China for safeguarding its national sovereignty and maritime rights. These countries try to demonize China as a “revisionist bully” that uses its military advantage to hurt the weak and challenge the regional order status quo.

Using their caution towards China, the United States has attempted to draw Vietnam and the Philippines to its side and upgrade its relationships in the region under the banner of maintaining “regional peace and stability.” Given the ongoing escalation of the China-Vietnam South China Sea dispute, the United States is not hiding its support for Vietnam, which undoubtedly serves as catalyst in enhancing US-Vietnam security relations.


Restrictions on US-Vietnam Security Cooperation


Based on their respective national strategies and interests, the United States and Vietnam are jointly promoting security cooperation and achieving significant progress. It must be noted, however, that US-Vietnam security relations still face some structural constraints.

First, both the United States and Vietnam want to maintain positive relations with China. Geographically, Vietnam is contiguous to China; politically it adheres to the leadership of the Communist Party and socialism; and economically it cooperates closely with China. Over the past decade, China has always been Vietnam’s largest trading partner. In 2003, the two countries’ trade volume was only 4.63 billion USD, but it climbed to 65.48 billion USD in 2013, with an annual increase of more than 30 percent. China-Vietnam trade accounts for more than 20 percent of Vietnam’s total foreign trade, and it is the main driver of Vietnam’s economic development.

Generally speaking, the two countries’ common interests far exceed their differences and territorial disputes, and this is well known to the Vietnamese government. In June 2013, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said during a visit to China, “the Vietnamese side always places Sino-Vietnamese relations as its diplomatic priority, and is willing to enhance political mutual trust, diminish differences, expand interests, and promote common development in the spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood.” [12] For the United States, the US-Vietnam relationship is far less important than US-China friendship. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the second largest economy in the world, the largest industrial producer and the United States’ largest trading partner.

As a result, the United States and Vietnam have to take China into consideration when conducting security cooperation, making sure that they do not jeopardize their relationship with China. Precisely because of this, the Vietnamese government has repeatedly expressed that it will adhere to the “Three No” principles in national defense and diplomatic policy – namely, no military alliances, no alliances with any country in opposition to another, and no tolerance for foreign countries building military bases on Vietnam’s territory.

Second, the United States and Vietnam lack mutual political trust. Socialist Vietnam has always been a strategic target of the United States for a “peaceful evolution.” The United States hopes that increased contact and communication with Vietnam will spark “upheaval” like the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. For example, supported by American conservatives and Vietnamese-Americans, the United States has tried to impose pressure on the Vietnamese government, or even overturn the leadership of the Vietnamese Socialist Party by funding anti-government parties, inciting Vietnamese national separatists and accusing Vietnam of restricting human rights and religious freedom.

One typical example is how the United States has always refused to lift its arms export ban on Vietnam, claiming that it was due to Vietnam’s poor human rights conditions. At the same time, Vietnam always remains vigilant against the United States’ intention to incite “peaceful evolution,” avoiding being reduced to a mere “color revolution.” The two countries’ frictions and opposition in political and ideological fields will continue to be a bottleneck restraining US-Vietnam security cooperation.

Third, US-Vietnam cooperation continues to be overshadowed by the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War caused – and continues to inflict – tremendous damage to Vietnam, including the death of three million soldiers and civilians, more than four million casualties and inestimable economic losses. Still today, problems caused by the war continue to harm the government and people of Vietnam, with remaining landmines and “agent orange” pollution, among other scars. The United States government’s shelving and perfunctory attitude to the above issues has caused strong discontent and opposition in Vietnam. It is evident that the wounds left by the war have not healed, seriously restricting any further development of Vietnam-US security cooperation.

Affected by the above structural constraints, US-Vietnam security cooperation continues to be beset by an array of contradictions. First, security cooperation development has an “instrumental rationality” color and lacks the foundation of strategic mutual trust. The fundamental motivation is to risk the other side’s profit for its own strategic benefit. For example, the United States hopes that a stronger Vietnamese naval and air force will make Vietnam more equipped to be the pawn and challenge China, serving the United States’ goal of containing China’s rise.

By the same token, Vietnam would like to use US-Vietnam cooperation as a lever to strengthen itself against China, even as it does everything in its power to avoid becoming the United States’ strategic tool. Second, regarding the content of cooperation, the United States prefers to strengthen the two countries’ traditional military and security cooperation, especially in joint training and combating of naval and air force. Vietnam is willing to focus on security cooperation in non-traditional fields, prioritizing communication and interaction on issues of low sensitivity, such as shipwreck search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and maritime law enforcement.

Finally, with regards to the focus of cooperation, the United States attaches importance to gaining a strategic foothold in Vietnam and is trying to access and use Vietnamese naval and air force bases and facilities. At the same time, the United States has urged Vietnam to assist the United States in its search for lost American soldiers from the Vietnam War. Vietnam, meanwhile, is focused on making the United States lift its overall arms export ban due to the human rights problem, and also seizes the opportunity to make the United States responsible for removing landmines and dealing with the “agent orange” pollution problem. Such contradictions make it hard for the United States and Vietnam to develop a close “expectant alliance,” let alone any “alliance” based on a formal treaty.


Prospects and Implications of US-Vietnam

Security Cooperation


Despite the above constraints, the US-Vietnam military relationship is being driven by China-US geographical strategic considerations and the China-Vietnam dispute in the South China Sea. In the future, the United States will probably continue to increase its military assistance to Vietnam, remove its overall arms export ban and possibly carry out more frequent and in-depth joint military exercises under bilateral or multilateral mechanisms. Vietnam is likely to relax its restrictions on the number and frequency of United States vessel visits. One can predict from the Vietnamese stance right now that if the United States cancelled its overall arms export ban on Vietnam, United States combat ships would probably “return” to Cam Ranh Bay.

Rapid development of US-Vietnam security cooperation will produce a series of significant impacts on bilateral relations and the regional security situation.

First, it will further improve bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam. Military and security relations were previously the weakest link in the US-Vietnam relationship. Communication and cooperation between the two militaries could effectively decrease their hostility, and contribute to stronger strategic and political mutual trust. It would gradually spillover into economic, trade, financial, social, cultural and other fields, enhancing relations across the board.

Second, this would promote the development of Vietnamese military power. In order to safeguard and consolidate its occupation of some islands in the South China Sea and deal with increasingly fierce sovereignty disputes over the Nansha Islands, Vietnam began making ambitious military modernization plans in recent years, setting the goal of “building a highly-qualified army” with a focus on naval and air force construction. Due to severe deficiencies in its national defense industry and scientific technology, however, Vietnam can only realize this upgrade via foreign military procurement, mainly military procurement from Russia. With a gradual improvement in US-Vietnam strategic and security trust, military cooperation between the US and Vietnam is now reaching significantly higher levels.

At present, the United States has partly lifted its arms export ban on Vietnam “related to maritime security,” and Vietnam can even purchase or “receive” advanced weapons from the United States for maritime and air surveillance, reconnaissance and combat use. Vietnam can also get the United States’ technological support, military tactical guidance, and weapon maintenance and upgrade services. As such, Vietnam is gaining an important channel for sophisticated weapon procurement.

In addition, although recent US-Vietnam military exercises have only been in non-traditional security fields of low sensitivity, Vietnam could always learn advanced tactics and experience from the United States military that will enhance the combat capabilities of the Vietnamese military.

Third, the evolving dynamic makes the Southeast Asian security situation more complex. For many years, the Vietnamese military has always been the strongest in Southeast Asia. Regarding the sovereignty of the Nansha Islands, there have always been sharp contradictions between Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The increasingly close relationship between Vietnam and the United States gives Vietnam a great deal of military assistance, advanced technology and weapons. As Vietnam’s maritime operating capacity becomes stronger, it will inevitably cause anxiety among other countries in the region. In recent years, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have all invested heavily in foreign military procurement to balance and contain the increasingly strong Vietnamese military power. Additionally, the United States has always tried to compromise with Vietnam on the “return” of American combat ships to the Cam Ranh Bay. Once it gets this foothold, the United States will have a strong hand in controlling South China Sea channels and intervening in South China Sea disputes. If this occurs, the United States’ influence in South China Sea security situations will thus grow dramatically.


[1] Xin Qiang is Professor and Deputy Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. His research is mainly focusing on China-US relations, maritime security studies, US politics and Taiwan issue.

[2] U.S. Department of State, “Joint Statement on U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue,” June 8, 2009,


[3] Keith Johnson, “Kerry’s Return to Vietnam Is All about Blocking China,” Foreign Policy, Dec. 16, 2013,


[4] “Panetta Sends Message to China during Historic Visit to Vietnam,” Foxnews, June 3, 2012,


[5] US Embassy in Vietnam, “United States, Vietnam Engage in Pacific Angel Efforts,” September 21, 2009,


[6] US Department of State, “International Military Education and Training Account Summary,”


[7] US Department of State, “Foreign Military Financing Account Summary,”


[8] Council on Foreign Relations, “Clinton’s Speech on America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” October 28, 2010,


[9] Kurt Campbell, “Asia Overview: Protecting American Interests in China and Asia,” Testimony before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, March 31, 2011,


[10] Robert Pape, “Soft Balancing Against the United States,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer 2005, p. 10.


[11]Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 14, 2014,


[12] Truong Tan Sang, “We are thankful for China’s long-term help and support to Vietnam”, June 20,2013,