Vietnam and the United States have announced that they will hold five days of “noncombatant” military exercises in the central part of the country near the city of Da Nang at the end of April 2012.
Press reports indicate that the drills will be focused on skills like navigation and maintenance.
The cooperation between the former enemies points to the new dynamic at play in the region with the smaller nations fronting the South China Sea increasingly falling into the arms of the United States due to their fear of a rising China.
The American-Vietnamese plans to conduct drills comes against the backdrop of a fresh dispute between China and the Philippines. The latest confrontation between the two nations was triggered when Chinese fishermen were discovered in waters claimed by both China and the Philippines. The Chinese deployed navy ships and planes to the area in support of what it said were its sovereign rights, forcing the present Philippine warship to vacate.
Relations between Vietnam and the United States have steadily improved over the last ten years as they share mutual concern over China’s rise and future plans in the region. Vietnam, like the other littoral states, has claims to portions of the South China Sea which is believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas deposits.
As the Chinese navy vastly increased its capabilities in recent years, Vietnam has also embarked on expanding its naval posture. In 2009, it bought six Russian diesel submarines worth $2 billion, in addition to eight Sukhoi fighter jets, with plans to buy more in the future.
Although they share a communist ideology, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam have been historically difficult. The two fought a war in 1979 after China became concerned that Vietnam was developing closer relations with the Soviet Union. This was a time when Sino-Soviet ties were strained and there was a fear that Chinese interests in Indochina would be affected.
The war was inconclusive militarily but sent the message that China would not tolerate with outside meddling in its backyard.
Beijing has tended to bully its neighbors when it is powerful. In 2011, it warned Vietnam that it would not hesitate to use military force to enforce its claims in the South China Sea region.
Despite China’s threats, in April 2012, Vietnam partnered with Russia’s Gazprom company to develop two offshore gasfields in the ocean.
Vietnam faces a quandary of seeking help from the United States against China without allowing the country to open up to political reform. The government has succeeded, however, in keeping tight control over power even as it reformed the economy, much like China has done. Following its economic reforms, foreign direct investment flowed into the country lifting average annual growth to 8 percent from 2003 to 2007. However, the World Bank predicts that Vietnam’s economy faces tough prospects going forward from rising inflation and increasing unemployment.
As such, the old axiom holds true in Southeast Asia as elsewhere. The enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend. China and the United States aren’t quite enemies but the region’s smaller countries share concerns about its military expansion and what it means for their interests going forward. For this reason, China is pushing countries like Vietnam to seek out support from the Americans in order to balance China’s power.
For its part, America is eager to reestablish its position in Asia as it has announced that its economic and political interests lie here in the twenty-first century, hence President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. Therefore, we can expect to see additional plans for drills between militaries as the specter of a rising China hangs over the region and the world.