The US is in talks with Vietnam to position military equipment in the South-east Asian country for the first time since the end of the war just over four decades ago, according to US officials.
The two governments have been discussing the use of Da Nang as a site to store equipment that could be used to respond to natural disasters in the region. The coastal city, perched strategically on the South China Sea, is where US combat forces first arrived in Vietnam in 1965.
The talks about pre-positioning equipment — although heavier on symbolism than military substance — are one example of the transformation in relations between the two former enemies, whose shared anxiety about a rising China has made them partners over the past two decades. Barack Obama, the US president, will arrive in Hanoi on Sunday night for a three-day visit that will anoint Vietnam, a one-party communist state, as an essential part of his “pivot” towards Asia.
But the cautious nature of the military engagements between the two countries, which include limits on the number of port visits and a stress on humanitarian missions, underlines the sensitivities that surround any US involvement in Vietnam. The US carried out an eight-year military intervention in the country from 1965-73.
While Hanoi wants to work with the US to challenge Beijing’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea, it is wary of irritating its superpower neighbour — a fellow Communist-run state with which Vietnam shares a complex set of security, trade and political ties.
Vietnam has a tortuous past with China, which controlled much of the north for centuries. Given such tense history and geographical proximity, Vietnam is “China’s Cuba”, one former senior US official said.
“As a Communist party, the US and its values pose an existential threat to [Vietnam’s] regime — but China poses an existential threat to the future of Vietnam as a country,” says Marvin Ott, a Southeast Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “They have 2000 years of dealing with a China problem and they are better at managing it than anyone else.”
Across Southeast Asia, rising fears about China and its growing military have created an open door for the US to improve relationships. In recent years, US aircraft and ships have returned on a semi-permanent basis to the Philippines for the first time in more than two decades, while US Marines have started training in northern Australia and new guidelines have allowed for closer co-operation with Japan. Vietnam has also been keen to enlist the help of the US, albeit at a slower pace.
The US is wary of moving too quickly. Mr Obama’s administration had hoped to announce the end of an embargo on selling offensive weapons to Vietnam, which would be another symbolic step in normalising relations, before his visit. But US officials say a decision has not yet been made — a reflection of continued concerns in Congress about Vietnam’s poor human rights record.
Even once the embargo is lifted, officials say Vietnam is unlikely to buy the sort of weapons — such as anti-ship missiles — that would infuriate the Chinese. Instead, the US is likely to sell Vietnam radar and other equipment to better monitor the South China Sea.
“You do not get to be a top Vietnamese leader without being finely attuned to Chinese views about US-Vietnam relations,” said Evan Medeiros, former senior director for Asia in Mr Obama’s White House. “There is a built-in circuit-breaker, so that they will not do anything that would elicit too strong a reaction from the Chinese.”
The Pentagon declined to comment on the talks with Vietnam. By focusing the discussion on disaster relief, US officials say, the idea of access to Da Nang has been framed in a way that is less provocative to China. In another sign of Vietnamese prudence, it limits port visits by US ships to three a year.
“Vietnam is going to be very cautious about not crossing red lines with China and the United States is going to respect that,” said Patrick Cronin, Asia director at the Center for a New American Security. “We are not looking for any new bases.”
However, Mr Cronin acknowledged that seemingly benign agreements about using facilities could have a dual use if tensions were to rise. “Access arrangements come in all shapes and sizes and . . . may be about making sure we would have the ability to fly aircraft and use ships and submarines in a crisis,” he said.
Vietnam’s slow thaw with the US began in earnest when President Bill Clinton’s administration ended a long-running trade embargo in 1994. Last year, Nguyen Phu Trong became the first general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist party to visit the White House. Mr Obama angered human rights groups by speaking about a desire for “a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect” during the visit.
However, analysts say the recent diplomatic activity does not mean that Hanoi is choosing Washington over Beijing.
Vietnam depends on Chinese imports and the two countries have several military and civilian partnerships, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Canberra.
He added that Vietnam was deepening ties with other countries, such as India, Japan and Russia — Hanoi relies on Moscow for weapons imports and maintenance. Russia’s interest in the region was also highlighted on Friday as it hosted a summit in Sochi for leaders from Vietnam and other countries in the 10-member Asean bloc of Southeast Asian states.
“Vietnam is trying to multilateralise its relations,” Mr Thayer said. “So to see it all bilaterally is not how Vietnam looks at it at all.”