U.S. military leaders are eyeing more cooperation with Vietnam in 2024, aiming to deepen a relationship that has expanded rapidly amid heightened tensions with China. But while both sides have expressed interest in strengthening ties, Hanoi’s desire to balance between its foreign partners and its wariness of its larger neighbor will likely limit how far it will take its security relationship with the U.S.
Vietnam’s elevation of its relationship with the U.S. to a comprehensive strategic partnership in early September was a major milestone, moving the U.S. up two tiers in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy just 10 years after the countries first established a comprehensive partnership. In a statement afterward, President Joe Biden and Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, praised their countries’ “remarkable strides” over the past decade and pledged “to deepen cooperation,” including by their militaries.
Since then, U.S. military leaders have touted the upgrade as an opportunity to do more with Vietnam.
“We’d really like to get to Vietnam,” Col. Brandon Teague, commander of the U.S. Army’s 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), said in an interview at a conference in Washington, D.C. in October. Teague’s unit, which is assigned to the Indo-Pacific theater, is one of several SFABs set up in recent years to train foreign forces and build relationships overseas.
Teague said that during the Indo-Pacific Armies Chiefs Conference in India in late September, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, Gen. Charles Flynn, asked his Vietnamese counterpart to host this year’s version of that meeting. Vietnam didn’t agree at the time, “but they didn’t say no,” and their presence at the 2023 meeting “was a good sign all in itself,” Teague said. “So we’d really like to partner with Vietnam, if possible, in the future.”
Flynn met with Vietnamese army officials in Hanoi in November and reiterated the U.S. Army’s interest in expanding collaboration. Speaking to reporters in January, Flynn again praised the elevation of relations, calling it one of several “indications” of “increased opportunities for interoperability” and “increased opportunities to continue to work with our allies and partners” in the region.
Adm. Samuel Paparo, who is nominated to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, echoed that sentiment at his confirmation hearing this month, telling lawmakers that, “we’re ready to partner with Vietnam as deeply as they want.”
The U.S. and Vietnamese militaries have worked together for decades, focusing on recovering missing personnel and unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War. Those efforts have expanded in recent years and other exchanges have increased, highlighted by several visits by U.S. aircraft carriers to Vietnam since 2018.
The militaries now cooperate on humanitarian assistance, disaster preparedness and relief, peacekeeping, military medicine, and public health, among other efforts. “There are a number of things that we’re doing together as partners that I think reflect our shared interests,” Lindsay Ford, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in January.
Asked what cooperation the Pentagon wanted to pursue in 2024, Ford pointed to ongoing work on disaster response and military medicine as well as maritime security, including “helping Vietnam build its own maritime-domain awareness capabilities.”
“One thing we are certainly focused on helping our partners with [is] English-language training as well, because a lot of times when it comes down to the very tactical [military-to-military] kinds of exchanges, things as basic as they need to actually use the same words and stuff for what they’re doing is a part of how we can grow” those exchanges, Ford added.
U.S. officials emphasize that they want to work with Vietnam for the sake of improving bilateral relations rather than to counter China, but the outreach comes as the U.S. is trying to bolster its partnerships and alliances amid competition with Beijing. For Vietnam, the elevation of relations with the U.S. reflects a desire to improve ties with Washington, but Hanoi has upgraded relations with a number of countries while seeking to reassure China, its larger neighbor and major trading partner, that it is not doing so to challenge Chinese interests.
“Vietnam last year was probably the only country that hosted both President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping, so it maintains a good relationship with all competing major powers,” Huong Le Thu, deputy director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group, said at a Carnegie Endowment event this month
Vietnam engages with countries “as long as it is within its interests, so I don’t think anyone is able to gear Vietnam away from any other country,” Le Thu said, adding that the U.S. should “manage” its expectations, as Hanoi “is not going to align its interest more to the U.S. if it’s not already in Vietnam’s interest.”
That approach will likely limit military cooperation with the U.S., according to Nguyen Hung Son, vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
“Military cooperation that is characterized as capacity-building, as sharing of knowledge, maybe to a certain extent sharing of information, that is the type of activities that Vietnam might be more ready to participate in,” Hung Son said at the CSIS event. “Regarding more, I’d say, sophisticated kind of activities, like exercises or deeper kind of cooperation, I think that is going to take more time for Vietnam to be ready to be fully engaged.”
But that “doesn’t mean there can’t be arrangements,” Amb. Ted Osius, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017, said at the Carnegie event.
Leaders in Hanoi “are pragmatic,” Osius said, citing the possibility of granting U.S. warships access to Cam Ranh Bay for refueling and replenishment as part of a commercial deal rather than in a basing agreement, which Vietnamese defense policy precludes.
“We’re developing a powerful partnership with Vietnam,” Osius said. “There’s a lot of that can be done in a very pragmatic fashion that will strengthen our partnership including in the security realm, even absent alliances, even absent bases.”