Adding Strategic Depth to U.S.-Vietnamese Defense Relations
By Lewis M. Stern
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is scheduled to visit Vietnam following the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in late May 2012. He will be the fourth Secretary of Defense to make this trip – William Cohen visited in March 2000, followed by Donald Rumsfeld's 2006 visit, and Richard Gates' visit in 2010. Each of these cabinet officials made clear contributions to bilateral efforts to add strategic depth to a bilateral defense relationship that has made significant progress since its inception in November 1996.
Secretary Panetta's trip to Hanoi is an opportunity to build on several years worth of clear efforts on the part of the Vietnamese to embrace the idea of a "strategic partnership" with the United States. The Vietnamese are primed to enhance cooperation in the realm of defense and security. They have signed a framework agreement that enshrines the principle of closer defense cooperation and defines some very concrete, practical focus areas including peacekeeping, humanitarian disaster relief, maritime security and search and rescue. The Vietnamese have sought to develop opportunities for dialogue between defense universities and research institutes.
Bilateral Defense Engagement in 2011 and 2012
American and Vietnamese initiatives regarding defense cooperation during the course of 2011 were aimed at deepening strategic level dialogue; focusing the two militaries on capability building efforts and on opportunities for service-specific activities; and expanding the boundaries of acceptable military-to-military engagement in gradual and measured ways aimed at meeting contemporary security challenges.
In April 2011, U.S. National Defense University (NDU) President Admiral Ann Rondeau visited Vietnam as a guest of the Commandant of the Vietnamese National Defense University. A courtesy call on the Defense Minister, Phung Quang Thanh, and a session with Vice Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh anchored the visit to important moments in the relationship, specifically Thanh's December 2009 visit to Fort McNair during which the Minister endorsed the idea of NDU relations with the Vietnamese National Defense Academy, and Vinh's 28 September 2010 visit during which a formal relationship was established between NDU's Institute for National Strategic Studies and the Vietnamese Defense Ministry's Military Strategy Institute and the Institute for Foreign Defense Relations.
The fourth annual U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue took place in Washington D.C. in June 2011. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro and Standing Vice Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh met to share views concerning bilateral and regional security issues. The two officials discussed measures to further strengthen cooperation on nonproliferation, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, POW-MIA accounting, addressing dioxin and Agent Orange issues, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other areas of defense and security cooperation. The two sides committed to work toward a "strategic partnership" between the two nations.
In July the two countries held joint naval activities in the coastal waters off Da Nang involving naval personnel in engineering, search and rescue, and medical activities, expanding on the first bilateral naval activities held in 2010. The 2011 activities were characterized as a "joint exchange." In mid-2011, Vietnam enrolled the first PAVN officer in the U.S. National War College class. Senior Colonel Ha Thanh Chung, a department head in the Vietnamese Military Science Academy, joined the class of 2011-2012 for a year of study as an International Fellow. In August, U.S. Navy Surgeon General Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson Jr. and Vietnam's Military Medical Director Colonel Vu Quoc Binh signed a Statement of Intent (SOI) on Military Medical Cooperation in Hanoi. The statement committed both sides to institutionalized cooperation in military medicine through exchanges of experts and joint research. The Obama Administration requested $1.1 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Vietnam in FY2011. The second annual session to place in September 2011, followed by the Bilateral Defense Dialogue, an annual planning session involving U.S. Pacific Command and Vietnamese Ministry of Defense representatives.
On 20 September 2011 the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia (OSD Policy) and Vietnam's Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh signed a Memorandum of Understanding for "advancing bilateral defense cooperation." The document identified five areas in which both sides will work to expand cooperation: maritime security cooperation, search and rescue cooperation, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) cooperation, humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) cooperation, and cooperation between defense universities and research institutes.
Paralleling and supporting this effort was a project undertaken at the National Defense University (NDU) beginning in late 2008 aimed at building a set of relationships to Vietnamese Defense and Foreign Ministry strategic thinkers and analysts. In December 2011 NDU Vice President for Research and Applied Learning visited to Hanoi and signed agreement with the Defense Ministry's Institute for Defense International Relations (IDIR) involving NDU's Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) in a joint research project on maritime security issues and a possible peacekeeping operations simulation. A second document setting the parameters for a broadened relationship between NDU and the Vietnamese National Defense Academy (NDA) that will bear the signature of both the NDA Commandant and the NDU President provided structure for expanded engagement between the two defense institutions.
The Impetus For Advancing U.S.-Vietnamese Defense Cooperation
The Defense Ministry's response to the U.S. attempt to systematically codify activities in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) aimed at enhancing practical military cooperation, deepening training ties, and initiating formal joint exercise activities in a myriad of areas was the single most important indicator of Vietnam's willingness to expand the parameters of defense engagement with the U.S., to "add strategic depth" to activities that had characterized military relations from the late 1990s.
Momentum for the idea of a defense cooperation framework agreement between senior most defense officials derived from the discussions between Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Nguyen The Dung during his mid-2008 visit to the Pentagon, when both leaders agreed to establish a mechanism between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Vietnam's Ministry of National Defense to exchange policy-level perspectives on bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual concern.
The inaugural session of that dialogue took place in August 2010 and established the basis for discussion of ways to improve bilateral defense cooperation in several areas including Search and Rescue, Maritime Security, and POW/MIA operations. The U.S. came away from that session with the sense that the discussion was very open and candid, and identified a newfound willingness on the part of the Vietnamese to advance bilateral cooperation in the form of joint exercises.
In the first months of 2011 the Office of the Secretary of Defense drafted a US-Vietnam Strategic Defense Framework document that was circulated on 1 April 2011. That document derived, ultimately, from the initiatives first trotted out during Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh's visit to Washington, D.C. on 14 and 15 December 2009, following a stop in Hawaii where he met with the Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces. During the Washington portion of his trip, Thanh met with the Secretary of Defense, and struck an agreement in principle regarding the terms for expanding bilateral cooperation in five key areas: the establishment of regular, high-level dialogues between the U.S. Department of Defense and Vietnam's Ministry of National Defense; maritime security; search and rescue; peacekeeping operations; and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
In specific terms, the Vietnamese Defense Minister agreed to every one of the Defense Department's five proposals to expand military-to-military relations: commencement of a policy dialogue in 2011, a SAR exercise, joint patrols, more active participation in the Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative (GPOI), and enhanced Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relied (HADR) cooperation. The two sides continued to discuss these terms of reference for expanded defense relations at the Bilateral Defense Dialogue in August 2010, and reaffirmed the agreed upon areas of enhanced cooperation during Secretary Gates' visit to Hanoi in October 2010.
To the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Framework document represented a non-binding guide for advancing bilateral security cooperation. The intention was that the Pentagon, and the interagency group responsible for managing coordination of policy initiatives in bilateral relations with Vietnam, would work with PACOM to develop individual plans for the five areas of cooperation.
The key point about these areas of practical bilateral cooperation is that, early on, it became clear that the activities which would resonate most clearly with the Vietnamese were those that had found wide acceptance among ASEAN members, and those that had legitimacy as the result of being at the core of United Nations activities in which Vietnam was invested.
The MOU formalizes this reality in the defense relationship: for the Vietnamese, new areas of cooperation between our defense establishments must be the focus of interest on the part of regional and global organizations, reflecting multilateral consensus rather than an exclusive U.S. focal point before the area of activity can be integrated into cooperative engagement between the U.S. and Vietnam.
For the U.S., that has always been a sensible course of action, and one that the Department of Defense took as a measure of the likely success of proposals regarding new areas of cooperation. It makes sense to see this given formal recognition, at least implicitly, in this MOU.
The willingness to agree to the Framework and the commitment to sustaining a widening range of other institutional-level engagement between think tanks, schools, and defense components suggests that the Vietnamese military has became more mindful about the basic criteria for strategic relationships and is more willing to push relationships toward a new level of practical defense cooperation.
What is clear is that the fundamental foreign and defense policy principles have shifted slightly, a new realism has begun to emerge, and Vietnam is searching for the tools and concepts necessary to negotiate these shifts. This enabled the United States and Vietnam to engage in activities in the defense and security realm that were not possible in the earlier years of military-to-military relations.
What will make enhanced strategic-level cooperation possible? Three initial thoughts:
- The argument from Hanoi that issues of human rights and religious freedom are sovereign matters that should not be as central stage to the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship as critical regional trade rules and market access issues is precisely the way to insure that these issues do indeed become the complicating variables that end up prohibiting further progress in bilateral relations. Instead, the Vietnamese should recognize the importance of these enduring issues as quality of life matters, take credit for Vietnam's commitment to these standards, acknowledge the need to talk about our differences of views, and endorse plans that provide the chance share views on these large issues.
- Vietnam needs to be prepared to turn its attention to defense reform, professional military education, standards of conduct, and civil-military relations as the bilateral defense relationship begins to focus on building military capabilities. These issues will eventually have to become an integral part of the bilateral dialogue not merely because of the legislative requirements and end user obligations that are explicitly a part of U.S. IMET and FMF programs, but because U.S. and Vietnam need to acknowledge that a real partnership would have us speaking to one another about growing the military relationship in a way that focused on these areas.
- A framework for an emerging strategic partnership that builds upon solid foundation has already been laid, and could be made more vigorous with a series of new initiatives including arms sales and high-level strategic dialogue. One way of achieving the critical mass necessary to nudge Vietnam in this direction will entail a commitment by the U.S. to helping the Vietnamese military become a modern force prepared to confront new 21st century challenges with correct and current equipment, adopt procedures that are the foundation for interoperability with the U.S. and regional friends and partners, and standards of behavior that are the hallmarks of a professional military force. The U.S. can kick start this process by funding tailored training packages in logistics, services, transportation and facilities support to international organizations; humanitarian response to civil and natural incidents; peacekeeping; and roles, missions and responsibilities of the military in international combined military efforts.
Dr. Lewis M. Stern served ten years in the Central Intelligence Agency, and for twenty years as a Southeast Asian specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He retired from the federal government in 2010. In 2012 he began teaching about contemporary Vietnam in the Department of Political Science, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA.