It was a wise step for Vietnam and the US to cooperate in non-combat soft military activities amid tensions over the East Sea disputes, according to some political analysts.
"As the US-Vietnam bilateral relationship broadens and deepens, it is natural for the two countries to pursue closer military-to-military ties," said Ian Storey, a security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.
"In recent years the pace of US-Vietnamese defense cooperation has quickened as both sides have become more familiar and comfortable with working with each other. Bilateral defense cooperation is mainly focused on resolving legacy issues such as MIAs (missing in action) and non-controversial areas such as military medicine and language training," he said.
On Monday (August 1), the US and Vietnamese militaries signed an agreement in Hanoi setting up cooperation in military medicine, a US Navy statement said.
The "first formal military relationship since their war" has become another sign of growing bilateral cooperation, AFP reported.
The two countries have been steadily building ties and last month held a joint naval drill. But Monday's agreement marks the first formal military cooperation since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995, according to the statement by the US navy.
Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson Jr., the US navy's surgeon general, said that the agreement was not about politics and that the US hoped for more collaboration on health issues around the region.
"Medicine and medical research are universal languages that all countries and cultures understand. Diseases affect us all in the same way," Robinson said in the statement.
"By working together in areas such as infectious disease research, we not only help each other, we help the world meet these global health challenges," he said.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China in recent months of provocations in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, where Beijing has a number of territorial disputes.
The US has repeatedly urged freedom of navigation in the East Sea. They described last week's exercises off Vietnam's central coast as non-combat, saying they focused on areas such as navigation and maintenance.
However, Storey of ISEAS speculated the US-Vietnam medical military cooperation could result in more US military presence in the region following East Sea tensions.
"It must also be recognized that there is a growing convergence of US and Vietnamese strategic concerns against the backdrop of a rising China. It is in this context that new areas of cooperation have opened up, including maritime security," he said. "The US Defense Department has pledged to increase its naval presence in Southeast Asia and to help regional states with capacity-building support. Vietnam will play an important role in helping to facilitate the US military presence through port visits and combined training exercises."
Mark Valencia, a maritime analyst in Hawaii and a leading expert on the dispute, said the agreement is "only a first and tenuous step."
"China is certain to be suspicious and unhappy about it"¦ This is why it would be wise for both Vietnam and the US to keep cooperation in non-combat soft military activities for the time being," he said. "The US is looking to extend its soft power in the region and this fits in nicely."
Valencia is conflicted on whether the agreement would help calm the East Sea tensions.
"It could exacerbate the situation if China thinks they are scheming against it. On the other hand, the US may try to tone down Vietnam's reactions or initiatives in the South China Sea thus contributing to stability," he said.