U.S. should not get too wrapped up in helping Vietnam in the South China Sea

During a recent visit to Vietnam, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall G. Schriver spoke about the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy and what it means for Hanoi.

Schriver, on his third visit to the former U.S. enemy as part of the annual Defense Policy Dialogue between the U.S. and the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, also talked about the growing military ties between both countries.

Speaking at the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City on 5 October, the U.S. diplomat referred to the Indo-Pacific as a “priority theater” for the United States as he mentioned a few of the more aggressive actions undertaken in the region recently by China, especially in the South China Sea (Vietnam refers to that body of water as the East Sea).

“Schriver defined the new U.S. National Defense Strategy as based upon three pillars: 1) recognition of great power competition, primarily between China, Russia, and the United States; 2) the development and nurturing of defense allies and partners; and 3) structural reforms of the U.S. Defense Department to better undertake its mission,” The Diplomat reported.

Analysis: The FOIP strategy is viewed as being beneficial to Vietnam, especially in the form of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), which the U.S. and other navies have been performing over the past few years as a means of countering Chinese claims to nearly all of the South China Sea (SCS).

Specifically, Schriver said U.S. FONOPs were primarily aimed at countering “facts on the ground” created by China’s construction of artificial islands in the SCS. In addition to conducting naval FONOPs, the U.S. diplomat noted that the U.S. was also conducting similar operations in the air as a means of resisting any existing or new declarations by China of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) in the SCS.

The recently adopted U.S. National Defense Strategy calls on improving relations and developing partnerships with many of China’s nervous Asian neighbors. But Washington can forget any formal alliance with Vietnam because of its “Three No’s” foreign policy: 1) No foreign bases in the country; 2) No former military alliances; and 3) No involving third parties in any disputes that Hanoi has with other countries.

Despite never having to form an alliance with the U.S., Vietnam will nevertheless benefit from American naval and air FONOPs throughout the Indo-Pacific, which means Hanoi will gain much while risking far less.

What’s more, the combination of FONOPs and the National Defense Strategy work to support territorial claims by powers other than China which often conflict with those of Beijing, Vietnam’s claims include.

Finally, in an era when the U.S., Russia, and China are competing for influence throughout the Indo-Pacific, Hanoi will very likely find it easy to play one country off the other in order to get what it wants.

For that reason alone and Vietnam’s stated aversion to risk via alliances, the U.S. should not spend too much diplomatic capital to woo Hanoi into its zone of influence — at least, not without some written guarantees.


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