The United States is sending one of its largest ships, the USS Carl Vinson, to Vietnam this week. It will be the first aircraft carrier to dock in the country since the end of the war in Vietnam, over 40 years ago.
In some respects this is a routine event: other US warships have been visiting Vietnamese ports since 2003. But it is also a symbolic moment. Previously, Vietnamese governments kept aircraft carriers at arm’s length – officials have only visited them far offshore. By welcoming the USS Carl Vinson into the harbour at Danang, the country’s third city, and the one closest to the disputed Paracel Islands, Vietnam is clearly sending out some strong messages.
The most obvious message is a riposte to China’s activities in the South China Sea. Vietnam is signalling that it has a powerful friend and that it is willing to pursue closer military ties with it. But this message is carefully nuanced. Vietnam has a policy of ‘three nos’: no to foreign bases on its territory, no to military alliances and no involving third parties in its disputes. We should not expect this position to change. Vietnam is not about to sign up to a US-led ‘containment’ of China.
But the Vietnamese government does seem to be using the carrier’s visit for its own purposes. Last year, Vietnam authorized the Spanish energy company Repsol to drill for gas off its southeastern coast. This was a surprising move, given that the leadership knew that their Chinese counterparts were certain to object. China did indeed respond: threatening to attack Vietnamese military outposts built on the Vanguard Bank, a piece of shallow seabed near the drilling site. Lacking international support, the Vietnamese government backed down and told Repsol to stop its work.
Vietnam still has the ambition to exploit the oil and gas fields that lie offshore. Its leadership may therefore be hoping that this visit by the USS Carl Vinson, and its escorting warships, will deter China from repeating its previous threats. It is possible that Vietnam has coordinated exploration activity with the arrival of the Americans.
Vietnam is also sending a more subtle and long-term message to China. Both countries are ruled by communist parties that share similar outlooks and policies. Beijing knows that Hanoi will not break or downgrade these comradely links unless something very dramatic happens. In 2014, ties did suffer when China sent an oilrig to drill off the disputed Paracel Islands. Vietnam responded by sending official envoys to the United States for discussions and China backed down.
By welcoming the US Navy to Danang this week, Hanoi is indicating its displeasure at China’s recent activity in the South China Sea – the military threats against Vietnamese bases and its construction of huge artificial islands in the Spratlys – and reminding Beijing that it could make further moves towards partnership with the United States. It is pressure on China to moderate its behaviour.
The openness towards the United States may seem surprising given recent political changes in Vietnam. In 2014 the most powerful figure in the country was the Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. He pursued an openly friendly policy towards the US and tacitly encouraged anti-China feeling at the grassroots. However, in January 2016 he was ousted from power by the general secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong.
Since then Trong has pursued an anti-corruption campaign targeting Dung’s allies. Some of Dung’s most powerful comrades have been given long jail sentences and others have been forced from their positions. This purge of figures that were seen as too individualistic, too corrupt and too pro-American has resulted in Trong’s group of ‘system loyalists’ taking back control at the top of the Communist Party.
Trong has also initiated a crackdown on dissidents and other critical voices. Bloggers have been given long jail sentences, a new law regulating use of the internet has stifled online discussion and social activists have been beaten and harassed. International criticism of the crackdown has been muted. In part this is a result of Vietnam working hard to portray itself as a friend of the United States and its allies.
By demonstrating his strategic usefulness to Washington, Trong may also be hoping to deflect pressure away from Vietnam’s large trade surplus with the US. For the past year Vietnam has courted President Donald Trump and his administration to try to prevent the imposition of protectionist measures on Vietnam’s export industries. So far it has been successful.
Trong and his allies in the Communist Party politburo have been portrayed as ‘pro-China’ but by inviting the US Navy to call they are showing that Vietnam is still capable of pursuing an independent foreign policy. By inviting an aircraft carrier in particular, they have broken an unofficial taboo about the degree to which Vietnam will engage with the United States. The messaging is deliberate and calculated and aimed in many directions simultaneously.
Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.