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Asean Affairs    9 July 2012

The Fifth U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue

By Ernest Z. Bower and Phuong Nguyen

The United States and Vietnam are engaged in a serious effort to broaden and deepen bilateral ties. In that context, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro cochaired the fifth U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue (PSDD) with Vice Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh of Vietnam on June 20 in Hanoi.

The PSDD is one of a series of regular bilateral exchanges between the United States and Vietnam ranging from ministerial-level visits to working-level meetings. The two delegations discussed bilateral and regional security issues of mutual interest. While the first U.S.-Vietnam PSDD in 2009 was viewed with real caution by some officials in Hanoi, Vietnamese leaders praised the last two dialogues as particularly productive and have expressed appreciation for continued U.S. assistance in combatting transnational security challenges facing Vietnam and Southeast Asia. For Washington, the U.S.-Vietnam PSDD is a concrete step toward upgrading the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership.”

Q1: What is the significance of the U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue?

A1: The annual PSDD signals commitment by both sides to elevate the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, especially in the area of security cooperation. The two countries agreed to upgrade their annual defense dialogue to the PSDD level in 2008. Last year, prior to the fourth PSDD, the president of the U.S. National Defense University (NDU) paid a visit to Hanoi and offered scholarships to Vietnamese officers to attend training at NDU.

Following the fourth PSDD, the two countries signed their first formal military agreement, the Statement of Intent on Military Medical Cooperation. Shortly thereafter, the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet visited Hanoi, and Vietnamese officers were invited aboard the USS George Washington to observe operations. In 2011, the two sides also discussed ways to raise their bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership,” an initiative that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supports.

This year, the PSDD took place two weeks after the historic visit of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Cam Ranh Bay, a U.S. air and naval base during the Vietnam War. The high-level meeting between Panetta and his counterpart, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh of Vietnam, created momentum for this year’s PSDD and reaffirmed the importance that both sides attach to the bilateral relationship.

The fifth PSDD in Hanoi took place in the context of warming U.S.-Vietnam ties and increasing economic, political, and defense and security cooperation.
Q2: What was on the agenda at the dialogue?

A2: While the U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue, which will be led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher of the United States and Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh of Vietnam in August or September, focuses on bilateral defense cooperation, the PSDD provides an arena to address cooperation in areas of nontraditional security. Nonproliferation, counterterrorism, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and cooperation on law enforcement and information sharing were all discussed. Both sides pledged to jointly address legacies of the Vietnam War, including accounting for missing U.S. servicemen and resolving outstanding consequences such as landmine removal and addressing dioxin and Agent Orange issues.

The two countries pledged to continue the exchange of high-level delegations as a way to foster trust and mutual understanding. Both sides stressed the importance of cooperation in regional organizations, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, the East Asia Summit, and the Lower Mekong Initiative.

On the issue of the South China Sea, the two sides agreed that territorial disputes should be resolved through peaceful means without coercion or the use of force and in accordance with international law as stated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Assistant Secretary Shapiro took the opportunity to reiterate that the United States does not take a position on competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

Q3: What are the regional implications of the U.S.-Vietnam PSDD?

A3: Although it is officially a bilateral forum, the PSDD has regional implications. First, it provides a channel for the United States to productively engage Vietnam in areas of urgent concern to Hanoi as well as its neighbors. Since the United States holds routine exchanges in security and defense with Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia, high-level engagement with Vietnam effectively completes the circle of U.S. bilateral cooperation in regional security with the major ASEAN countries.

Second, through the PSDD, the United States has continued to assist Vietnam in capacity building in order to combat security challenges that are transnational in nature. Vietnam’s readiness and ability to address these challenges will be critical in improving the security situation in mainland Southeast Asia. As Vietnam strengthens its capacity, it has been more than willing to share its experiences with its immediate ASEAN neighbors Cambodia and Laos, and more recently Myanmar.

Third, the PSDD is a platform for Vietnam to exhibit leadership and develop its capacity as a regional leader and constructive partner. The meetings support Vietnam in its role as a major contributor to ASEAN and future strategic partner of the United States. Hanoi’s recent unprecedented overtures for defense cooperation with Washington are evidence that bilateral dialogue and engagement are bearing fruit.

Q4: Who participated in the fifth PSDD?

A4: Assistant Secretary Shapiro headed the U.S. delegation. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Vikram Singh also took part in the dialogue. Aside from the meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Minh, Shapiro convened with Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh, who will lead the Vietnamese delegation at the third U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue later this year.

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

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