Pentagon Chief Visits Hanoi, Manila to Shore Up Defense Relations Amid Stronger Anti-China Push

Friday, 30 July, 2021 - 03:02

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have worked for years with China to draw up a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea - a diplomatic alternative to the military solution offered by the US, which regularly sails aircraft carriers through the waterway and stages provocative incidents in China’s and Vietnam’s claimed waters there.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Vietnamese and Philippine officials on Thursday in an attempt to shore up support for Washington’s push to oppose Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.

In Hanoi, Lloyd met with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Văn Giang, Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính, and President Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, where he discussed enhancing cooperation between the two nations on defense and in several other areas, ranging from natural disaster relief and COVID-19 assistance to addressing the legacy of the war the two nations fought in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Associated Press.

According to the South China Morning Post, Austin was expected to offer additional US Coast Guard ships and possibly another port visit by a US aircraft carrier “to signal closer strategic ties between the countries.”
It’s unclear what that coast guard cooperation would look like, but last weekend, the USCGC John Midgett, a 378-foot Hamilton-class cutter built in the early 1970s, arrived in Vietnam after being donated to the country’s coast guard, according to VN Express. It was the second such donation, after the USCGC Morgenthau was donated in 2017.

Legacy of US’ Bloody War in Vietnam

The day prior, Austin visited Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi, which Americans call the “Hanoi Hilton” and held American prisoners of war, including the late US Sen. John McCain, who was a pilot in the US Navy during the conflict.

I wanted to make sure one of my first stops in Vietnam was to the Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi. It is a visible reminder of the cost of war, and why our strong bilateral partnership with Vietnam today is rooted in our shared sacrifice.

— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) July 28, 2021
​“It is a visible reminder of the cost of war, and why our strong bilateral partnership with Vietnam today is rooted in our shared sacrifice,” Austin tweeted, accompanied by several photos of the museum.

However, that sacrifice was largely one-sided: while the US lost more than 58,000 soldiers during the war, which was fought across Vietnam as well as in Laos and Cambodia, more than 2 million Vietnamese died in the same conflict. The US heavily relied on its air power during the war, waging devastating bombing operations against North Vietnamese cities and scorched earth campaigns across the South Vietnamese countryside, where many peasants sympathized with the cause of national unity sought by the northern communist forces.

Austin pledged to redouble the US’ assistance in locating Vietnam’s war dead as well as the search for the remains of Americans still listed as missing in action (MIA). He also pledged to help remove landmines buried during the conflict and to help clean up the lasting contamination left behind by Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant sprayed across 31,000 square kilometers of Vietnamese jungle with the intent of denying Vietnamese forces places to hide. The active chemical, dioxin, is blamed for the disabilities and illnesses of as many as three million people, who have suffered birth defects and rare forms of cancer.

The US war in Vietnam ended in 1973, and two years later, the US puppet state in the country’s south was destroyed and the country was reunited under the socialist state based in Hanoi. Only in 1995 did Washington and Hanoi re-establish diplomatic relations. Although both Vietnam and China are socialist and cooperate in many areas, they also have diverging national interests in some respects. Like many Southeast Asian nations, Hanoi has tried to play Beijing and Washington off one another to advance those interests.
The US’ main goal in its relationship with Vietnam is, similarly, to pull the country away from China and use it to blunt Chinese foreign policy goals in the region, including its claims of sovereignty over several island chains in the South China Sea and the expansion of the Belt and Road infrastructure megaproject.

Both Vietnam and China have fortified their positions on several of the contested islands, and fishing boats and maritime exploration vessels from both nations have clashed in the contested waters, especially those looking for hydrocarbon deposits on the seafloor. However, despite the disagreements, Hanoi and Beijing have taken significant steps to address the friction themselves, recently establishing a naval hotline and conducting joint coast guard patrols.

Austin similarly said earlier this week in Singapore, where his tour of the region began, that he is “committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”

Rehashing VFA With Manila

Austin also traveled to Manila on Thursday to meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., to discuss mutual security concerns, according to ABS-CBN. Unlike with Vietnam, the US has had a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines since 1951, but the Visiting Forces Agreement by which US forces are stationed in the country on rotations was recently cast into doubt after Duterte threatened to scrap it.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said last week in a national address that the VFA would “not be changed, but there will be some addendum, side agreement to implement the VFA.”

Like Vietnam, the Philippines has a two-sided relationship with China: Duterte has referred to China as “a friend,” but Manila had few nice words for their northern neighbor this past spring when a Chinese fishing fleet anchored off Whitesun Reef, an island in the Spratly chain claimed by the Philippines, ostensibly to seek shelter from a storm.

Amid the feud, Chinese and Filipino diplomats pledged to redouble work on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, a document that, once drawn up, would create a legal framework in which the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and other nations could regulate their naval interactions with reference to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Enforcing UNCLOS has been the US’ prime justification for a dramatic ramping up of its military presence in the waterway in recent years, where it regularly conducts war games and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), the latter of which it uses to show contempt for China’s and Vietnam’s maritime claims. However, the US doesn’t itself recognize UNCLOS, having refused to accede to several parts of the treaty, and thus never ratified it.

“We don’t believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules or worse yet, throw them over the transom, and in this regard I’ll emphasise our commitment to freedom of the seas,” Austin said in Singapore. The US has claimed that the Code of Conduct negotiations are being dominated by China, and it’s been suggested by some US think tank academics that Washington should even try to sabotage the talks, presenting an alternative to the ASEAN nations they would then jointly impose on Beijing.