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APRIL 2015


The move allows Hanoi to purchase radar and Coast Guard ves-

sels to enforce its marine territory, but it still wants Washington

to lift the ban entirely.

Dealing with China

Part of this warming of security ties has undoubtedly been

driven by tensions in the economically strategic South China

Sea, where Beijing, Vietnam’s northern neighbor and longtime

communist ally, has pressed its so-called “Nine-Dash Line”

claim. In particular, China has occasionally cut the seismic cable

of Vietnamese oil exploration vessels and arrested Vietnamese

fishermen around the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by

Vietnam but have been controlled by China since the 1970s.

Tensions escalated in May 2014 when China moved a deep-

water oil rig, accompanied by several naval vessels and scores

of other ships, into water off the Paracel Islands to explore for

oil. In a standoff over the next two months, the two countries

harassed each other’s ships, ramming them and firing water

cannons. In mid-July, at the height of typhoon season and just

before a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a regional

security dialogue in which China and the United States partici-

pate, Beijing withdrew the rig, declaring it had completed its

exploration activities.

Despite tensions between Hanoi and Beijing, China is by far

Vietnam’s largest trading partner and a major investor. China

provides electricity to northern Vietnam and supplies many of

the inputs for two of its largest exports, garments and rice.

Vietnam appreciates the U.S. approach, which calls for all

parties to the South China Sea dispute to manage their differ-

ences peacefully and in accordance with international law, while

remaining neutral on questions of territorial sovereignty over

the sea’s land features. However, Hanoi has moved cautiously in

expanding its naval cooperation and military ties with the United

States, both over concern about irritating China and lingering

resentment of the United States among some senior generals.

Hanoi’s relations have warmed dramatically with its South-

east Asian neighbors, even though ASEAN once pressured

Vietnam to withdraw its forces from Cambodia. Today, Vietnam

is one of the most active members of the 10-nation grouping

and uses the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit as

vehicles to challenge China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Working together, Vietnam and the United States were a driv-

ing force in the 2010 establishment of the ASEAN Defense Minis-

ters Meeting Plus, an 18-nation security forum whose members

include Australia, China, India and Japan, where senior defense

officials discuss regional security challenges.

Grassroots Efforts Bear Fruit

People-to-people engagement between Vietnam and the

United States has been at the forefront of efforts to boost bilat-

eral relations. Over the past two decades, Vietnamese students

have become the largest contingent of Southeast Asians studying

in the United States. Today there are 16,000 Vietnamese studying

in U.S. colleges, some supported by U.S. government programs

but most by their families. A key factor driving these numbers is

the low quality of university education in Vietnam. It also does

not hurt that the United States is viewed favorably by 76 percent

of Vietnamese, according to a July 2014 Pew Research Center


Washington and Hanoi are cooperating in efforts to open a

private, nonprofit Fulbright University in Vietnam. Congress has

approved nearly $18 million of the $70 million needed to estab-

lish the university, and organizers are now looking for funding

fromU.S. and Vietnamese companies. The organizers are seeking

approval to name an independent board of governors and a guar-

antee that it will be granted independence in choosing its teachers

and curriculum.

The two countries are also increasing joint efforts to address

Vietnam’s environmental challenges resulting from population

growth, industrialization and the impact of climate change. The

Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is threatened by the construc-

tion of hydropower dams along the Mekong River by China and

Laos, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west. The dams disrupt the flow

of fish, reduce the arrival of silt and cut the flow of water, resulting

in rising salinity in the low-lying Delta. During his 2013 visit, Sec.

Kerry announced a $17 million aid program to help communities

in the Delta deal with environmental degradation and adapt to

climate change.

Hanoi and Washington are also actively pursuing a possible

visit to Vietnam by President Barack Obama this November, when

he will be in nearby Malaysia and the Philippines for two regional

summits. Whether the visit takes place will likely depend on

progress in such areas as human rights in Vietnam, the prospects

for increased trade and investment under the TPP agreement and

closer military ties between the two countries.


Despite tensions between

Hanoi and Beijing, China is by

far Vietnam’s largest trading

partner and a major investor.