During his landmark visit to Vietnam, the US's top-ranked military officer sought to divert attention away from China.
“I hope the message is that we’re trying to be an honest broker,” said General Martin Dempsey, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since the war that ended in 1975.
Dempsey made his comments at a press briefing on August 16 in the sultry air of Ho Chi Minh City, which once served as the political and economic center of the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam.
Not suprisingly, Dempsey treaded lightly in his comments.
“I don’t want to force you to have to choose between being a friend of the United States and a friend of China,” he said. “Because China’s your neighbor. You have incredible economic almost interdependencies with China.”
On May 2, China deployed an oil rig in Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, sending Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging toward their lowest point in decades and triggering deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
For the next two months Chinese and Vietnamese vessels engaged in a tense standoff at sea.
China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Before it did so, the US Senate issued a resolution which, among other things, condemned China's "unilateral actions" in waters rich in natural resources and straddling vital global shipping lines.
The US has been a vocal critic of China’s behavior and reiterated its strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific, while denying allegations that the move was designed to contain Beijing.
“When I have conversations with my Chinese counterparts about when they assert that we’re trying to contain them or that we are rebalancing against them, it is not against them,” Dempsey said at the briefing that took place at the US Consulate in HCMC, sitting between the national flags of the US and Vietnam.
During the 22-minute briefing, he used the term “East Sea”, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea, four times, a move analysts considered “culturally sensitive”.
“The common interests that we have, the national interests that we have in the East Sea relate to freedom of navigation, open and free access to markets, and international order,” he said.
“Although the US wants to appear as an honest broker, it cannot be one and what has been done to date appears to be an effort to convince the rest of Asia (Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines) to build up their military.” -- Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland)
Strategic port call
During his four-day visit to Vietnam, Dempsey met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and his counterpart Do Ba Ty in Hanoi.
He then flew to the central city of Da Nang and toured a US-funded thermal treatment plant built two years ago to clean up dioxin, a highly toxic chemical present in the defoliants used by the US troops to strip Vietnamese forces of ground cover and food.
The first phase of the cleanup project began in June 2011, after the Obama administration announced its rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region amid rising sea tensions between Vietnam and China.
Several experts have put things in a global geopolitical perspective: Da Nang is a strategic deep water harbor in the East Sea, where China is rapidly expanding its military, economic and civilian presence.
For skeptics of the US rebalancing policy, Dempsey's Vietnam visit was well-calibrated to serve a well-known agenda.
“Although the US wants to appear as an honest broker, it cannot be one and what has been done to date appears to be an effort to convince the rest of Asia (Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines) to build up their military,” Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told Thanh Nien News.
“Even though the US tries to convince the world it is peaceful and promotes human rights, it generally places priority on a military solution or one that promotes a strategy of what is termed ‘peace through strength.’” McCornac said. “Of course, this will not be explicitly stated. It will be disguised as promoting freedom of navigation (and that is an important goal), but the primary purpose of the US is to discourage the influence of China in the region.”
Dempsey also fielded a number of questions on the possibility of lifting the US ban on selling lethal weapons to Vietnam.
Vietnam's senior leaders have recently urged the US to do so. Ted Osius, the incoming nominee for ambassador and several US senators, including John McCain (who visited the country this month), have thrown strong support behind this plan.
“There have been increased discussions about it, and my sense is there’s increased support [for it],” Dempsey said. “My military advice is that it will be that if it is lifted that we begin with assets that would make the [Vietnamese] People’s Navy more capable in the maritime domain.
“It could mean any number of capabilities, which would lead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and even potentially some weapons for their fleet that they currently don’t have.”
During a visit to Hanoi in early this month, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would give six used naval boats to Vietnam to boost its patrol and surveillance capacity in the East Sea. The donation, worth an estimated 500 million Yen (US$4.86 million), will be accompanied by training and equipment to help the coastguard and fisheries surveillance in their efforts.
In Southeast Asia, defense expenditures are projected to hit $40 billion by 2016, up from $25 billion in 2009. In the past decade, Vietnam's own military spending has more than tripled.
“In part the increase is due to the fact that from 1998-2003 defense spending was flat or shrunk in most states,” a Southeast Asia analyst said, declining to be named. “But right now it is being driven by one thing and one thing only: China.”
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line--a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) --namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Dempsey seemed to acknowledge as much during his briefing.
“It’s inevitable that the shadow of China hangs over these conversations,” he said, before pointing out that he did not invite Vietnamese General Do Ba Ty to Washington last year and did not come to Vietnam just to focus on China.
“I came here to focus on the relationship between the United States and Vietnam,” he said. “And incidentally, not just militarily, but with all the instruments of economic, diplomatic information and so forth, national power.”
Since Vietnam and the US normalized ties in 1995, bilateral trade has thrived. However, a ban on the sale of lethal weapon among other things has stifled military ties between the two former foes.
Analysts say Hanoi’s relationship with Washington remains far looser than most others in the region and will not advance, at least in the foreseeable future, to something like the US defense relationship with the Philippines, Singapore, or Thailand.
At the end of the day, “Vietnam should not pick a side. Countries always act in their own self-interest no matter what the rhetoric and Vietnam needs to do the same,” McCornac said.
“What will happen in the 2016 US election is anybody's guess and if a republican is elected, most likely the US would pursue a policy of being more confrontational with China. This could hurt Vietnam in the future.”