By APD Writer Wu Jian
(Translated by Ma Qian)
The Pentagon announced earlier last week that it would send an aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam next year, the first since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Hanoi said that during his visit to the U.S. in May Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc discussed with U.S. President Donald Trump the possibility of the aircraft carrier’s visit.
The planned move, the first in more than four decades, has been widely seen as a sign of rapprochement between the two countries.
In fact, the U.S.-Vietnam relations have began to heat up since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1995. In particular, the two countries entered a “honeymoon” during Barack Obama’s presidency. To promote its Asia-Pacific policy, the Obama administration gradually bolstered its relationship with Vietnam, which is viewed as the “spearhead” of Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy.
In July 2015, Nguyen Phu Trong became the first general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee to have visited the U.S.. Washington gave him a VIP reception. The U.S. said publicly that the visit meant that former foes have turned to friends.
In May 2016, Obama paid his first visit to Vietnam, which made him the third incumbent U.S. president -- after Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- to visit Vietnam since 1995.
During the visit, the U.S. announced to fully lift embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam. In return, Vietnam considered granting the U.S Navy access to Cam Ranh Bay.
Despite some breakthroughs in the Obama era, the two sides still bear a grudge against each other over the war past, different ideologies and human rights spats. That can explain why the Obama administration would only allow the U.S. to sell military weapons to Vietnam “on a case-by-case basis.”
However, those existing structural conflicts did not stop the two countries from improving ties. On May 31, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc paid a visit to the U.S., making him the first ASEAN leader to visit the Trump White House. The Bangkok Post, a local English-language daily newspaper, disclosed that while Trump also made invitations to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Nguyen got a foot in the door first.
The reason why U.S.-Vietnam relations have still maintained strong momentum since Trump took office lies in the fact that the two countries need each other in their geopolitical games against China.
South China Sea has long been an important factor for the U.S. to implement its “Pivot to Asia” strategy. In the face of the Philippines’ policy shifts in the South China Sea, the U.S. now needs to rely more on Vietnam. While Vietnam, which used to hide behind the Philippines, now has to fight alone.
Therefore, it needed badly to rope in a helping hand from outside Asia. More importantly, in the eyes of Vietnam, Trump is an ideal partner who focuses on exchange of interests, and is able to rise above differences in ideology.
According to Reuters, the planned U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam is a move intended to counter China in their wrestling in the South China Sea. Such an analysis is reasonable. The news on the U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam came at a time when the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting was held and during U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Southeast Asia.
It is reported that Vietnam insisted on mentioning “land reclamation” and “militarization” in a joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting, delaying the release of the communique. As a result, a scheduled meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese foreign ministers was called off.
Before that, Vietnam was building up its military fortifications and land reclamation in disputed islands, and had explored oil and gas in disputed waters. Those moves go against the country’s promise to “manage and properly control maritime disputes” through bilateral dialogues, which was made during Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s visit to China this year.
Tillerson paid his first visit to Southeast Asia from August 5 to 9. He first participated in a series of ASEAN meetings and then visited the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, three important allies for the U.S. in Southeast Asia.
Despite his attempts to boost U.S. presense in Southeast Asia and repair the country’s relationships with its allies, observers said that Tillerson’s most important task was to make a mess in the current situation of the South China Sea. It is mainly shown in the following three aspects:
First of all, to sway the following consultation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to the U.S. favor. The U.S. said it hopes the final version of the DOC will be legal binding, in an attempt to limit China’s ability to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests in the South China Sea.
Secondly, the U.S. mustered Australia and Japan to issue a joint statement after the foreign ministers of the three countries met in Manila on the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial meeting.
In the statement, the three countries expressed "serious concerns" over disputes concerning the South China Sea, and called for a halt to land reclamation and military actions in the area. They called on China and the Philippines to abide by an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated much of China's territorial claim to the South China Sea.
Such a move is intended to hype conflicts over relevant issues and bolster regional tensions by bringing in pressure from outside the region, especially at a time when China and the ASEAN are working together to ease the tensions in the area.
Lastly, Tillerson seeks to through his visits to the Philippines and Malaysia to alienate the two nations’ ties with China, and draw them over to the United States.
Thus, it is conspicuous that the U.S. and Vietnam have collaborated to hype up conflicts over the South China Sea during the ASEAN ministerial meeting. Mulling a U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam is another major, bold move to mess up the South China sea.
It is reasonable to predict that the U.S. will increase its interference in the South China Sea issue, as Trump’s foreign policy has been increasingly bound to the U.S. political establishment and military industrial complex. While at the same time, China-U.S. relations have entered an unstable phase due to tensions over the Korean Peninsula and issues related to Taiwan and trade.
A testament to the projection is that some U.S. news media disclosed that the Trump administration has approved a yearly plan to give the U.S. navy greater freedom to navigate in the South China Sea. On the other hand, how Vietnam will choose, driven by its self-interests, to act in the South China Sea worth continuous attention.
(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)
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