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Background Briefing: Vietnam: US Consul and US Navy Ships Visit Da Nang Carlyle A. Thayer April 27, 2013
[client name deleted] Q1. The US Consul General yesterday "called on" the government office of the Paracels, which Vietnam calls Hoang Sa, in the central city of Da Nang. Vietnam has appointed the chairman of the Paracels several years ago in a largely symbolic move to assert sovereignty over the archipelago that has been occupied by the Chinese since 1974. The Consul General’s visit came on the heels of the US Navy destroyer docking April 21 in the central port of Tien Sa in Da Nang City. Also in Da Nang, the US announced on April 24 that funding for a project to clean up dioxin, the toxic chemical left behind by Agent Orange, at a former American airbase would double to US$84 million. The project was officially started in August 2012. What is your assessment of the Consul General’s visit? Does it have any significance at this stage, especially when China has publicly flexed its naval muscles in waters off the Vietnamese coast? ANSWER: The Consul is doing his duty by keeping the US Government informed of developments including Vietnam. The United States government is not signaling any major change of policy in its position that it is neutral with respect to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The US ships visits to Da Nang are part of a long-‐established program of annual ship visits recently expended to include cooperative naval engagement activities. They do not involve military exercises and are designed to build trust and confidence between the US and Vietnamese navies. The US has been slow to meet its obligations under the Agreement to End the War and Restore Peace in Vietnam. In recent years it has begun to address the legacies of war including its responsibility to address the negative consequences of dioxin (Agent Orange). Da Nang was choses because it was the worst Agent Orange "hot spot." These events are a reaffirmation that the United States has national interests in maritime security and freedom on navigation in the South China Sea. The US is signaling that it is a "resident power" in the Asia-‐Pacific including the South China Sea. Q2. Some have said these series of events must be considered from a global
2 geopolitical point of view: Da Nang is a strategic deep water harbor in the East Sea, where China is rapidly expanding its military, economic and civilian presence. And this visit is just the latest manifestation of the hearts-‐and-‐minds competition between the US and China in the region. Would you say this is the correct reading of the status quo? What does it mean for the South China Sea dispute? ANSWER: The US views these activities as engagement with Vietnam aimed at building a more cooperative defence relationship. It should be noted that Vietnam also has parallel defence cooperation activities with China. Vietnam and China conduct joint patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin and in recent years they have conducted low-‐level search and rescue and anti-‐piracy activities. Vietnam also conducts strategic dialogues at deputy defence minister level with both China and the United States. Yes there is a geopolitical significance to these activities and their location in central Vietnam. China and the US may compete for the hearts and minds of Vietnam but Vietnam will pursue a policy of independence and self-‐reliance. Q3. Are you expecting China to react angrily to this visit? Or will Beijing engineer some kind of retaliation? ANSWER: China and Vietnam in recent years have also conducted exchange of naval visits to each other's ports. This is a normal activity that is part of international defence cooperation. It is the sovereign right of Vietnam to host such visits. China can hardly object to visits by US Navy ships to Vietnam when it permits US Navy ships to visit Hong Kong. Besides, this year the Chinese Navy will participate in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises in the waters off Hawaii for the first time. China may not view the US as an Asia-‐Pacific power but it cannot change present reality. The US is present in the region and contributes to the common good by ensuring that the sea lines of communication are kept secure and safe for global trade from which all countries, including China, benefit. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: US Consul and US Navy Ships Visit Da Nang,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 27, 2013. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived at Scribd.com