Analysts have speculated that the gesture is meant to make a point in Beijing, with whom Vietnam has territorial disputes. Beijing has protested against American presence near disputed territories in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is at the heart of a land and water dispute between China, the United States, and much of Southeast Asia. The US has maintained that the region was part of international waters. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, ruled that China’s maritime claims were not valid. Other countries that are disputing the South China Sea include Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Vietnam has become the most vocal critic of China’s claims to the sea, particularly since Filipino President Duterte’s China-friendly stance.
Relations between China and Vietnam soured after 1975. Hanoi drew Beijing’s ire when it intervened in Cambodia to oust a Chinese-backed regime. The two countries fought a border war in 1979. They share a border of approximately 1000 km.
Today, Vietnam’s main contest with China is over territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the Paracel and Spratley Islands. In July 2017, tensions between the two nations escalated when Beijing reportedly threatened military action if gas drilling in the region was not stopped. Hanoi consequently terminated the drilling operations. Despite tensions, the two countries have a two-way trade of approximately $50 billion.
China has backed its claims in the South China Sea with island-building and naval patrols, heedless to protests from other claimants. The United States has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key routes.
One of the reasons why the South China Sea is so vital to these countries is due to its strategic significance. It is a major trade route; any nation with complete control over the region would be able to disrupt trade shipments to East and Southeast Asia. Currently $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea. Much of China’s trade also passes through the Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage of water between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra, close to Indian naval bases in the Andaman Sea. A single Indian or US aircraft carrier in the strait would leave Beijing compromised.
For the first time since US troops withdrew from the country in April 1975, an American aircraft carrier will visit Vietnam. The carrier will dock at Danang, close to where US soldiers first landed in 1965. The USS Carl Vinson is nuclear powered, can carry over 5,000 troops, and can hold over 75 aircraft.
“It’s a pretty big and historic step, since a carrier has not been here for 40 years,” said Rear Admiral John V Fuller, commander of the Vinson. “We hope to continue the same issue that we’ve always had, and that’s to promote security, stability and prosperity in the region.”
While the United States frowns upon Vietnam’s suppression of political and religious dissidents, including journalists, ties have improved since diplomatic relations were first established in 1995. In 2016, the Obama administration lifted the arms embargo against Hanoi. Vietnam has thus far avoided arms deals with the United States, turning instead to its long-time supplier Moscow, and increasingly, to India and Israel. Vietnam does not conduct joint military exercises with the US.
“This will continue to promote bilateral relations within the framework of the two countries’ comprehensive partnership and contribute to maintaining peace, stability, security, cooperation and development in the region,” said Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang. Daniel Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, noted that the visit “demonstrates U.S. support for a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam”.
Analysts have stated that this visit is largely symbolic. It is intended to highlight US-Vietnamese ties, and send a message to China. John Kirby, retired US admiral and CNN analyst added, “it's also a broader message to everyone in the Pacific region, that the United States is here and we're here to stay."
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang recently concluded talks with Indian Prime Minister Modi to increase security and defence cooperation in order to “jointly work for an open, independent and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. The two leaders also agreed to deepen economic and trade ties.
Our assessment is that Vietnam has been vocal about its position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and will be keen to maintain an American presence in the region. However, military ties between the US and Vietnam are not deep enough for Vietnam to compromise its relationship with Beijing. Vietnam will thus attempt to balance its relations with Washington and Beijing.
We also believe that China is focussed on safeguarding its security interests in the South China Sea, particularly the Strait of Malacca, even as it attempts to secure alternative trade routes.