- - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

HANOI — China’s decision to place a massive oil rig in a disputed area of the South China Sea is helping reshape the relationship between two former enemies — the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Dwarfed by its communist-run neighbor, Vietnam has turned to the U.S. to counterbalance the aggressive, expansionist tactics of China, which has defended its deployment of a $1 billion, deep-water rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone by firing water cannons at Vietnamese patrol vessels and ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.

“We welcome efforts and engagement by countries and partners, including the U.S., as Vietnam’s comprehensive partner to contribute to peaceful resolution of this territorial dispute,” Ha Thuy Thong, vice chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly’s Foreign Relations Committee, said recently.

Under the Obama administration’s slow-moving “pivot” to Asia, Washington’s response has been long on reassurances and short on concrete actions. Officials have long said the pivot’s goal is to refocus attention and resources on the region, not to challenge China, which has used its position as Asia’s top military and economic force to coerce its smaller neighbors.

Still, Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea — China announced last week it is moving a second oil rig to the area — offers Hanoi and Washington the impetus for reshaping a relationship that has evolved significantly since U.S. helicopters evacuated the last Americans from Saigon 39 years ago. Already enjoying economic ties, Vietnam and the U.S. now have come to view potential threats in the region in a similar light.

“I am deeply concerned by the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, and China’s actions in disputed waters in the region raises serious questions about its commitment to peace and security in the region,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Cardin delivered his remarks late last month while meeting with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi.

The U.S. has regional alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan, but none with Vietnam — where more than 58,000 U.S. troops were killed and tens of thousands more wounded trying to halt the spread of communism in Southeast Asia in nearly 10 years of combat.

Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1995, Washington and Hanoi have expanded relations in a way that presents the potential for a strategic partnership. The passage of a bilateral trade agreement in 2001 has helped trade between the two countries to soar from $1.5 billion in 2001 to more than $29 billion in 2013.

Vietnam also is part of Washington’s plans for major economic growth in Asia. Along with nine other countries, the United States and Vietnam are negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic agreement that aims to set new standards to promote even more robust U.S. ties to Asia in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has put down markers pointing toward closer strategic ties. Over the past year, President Truong Tan Sang has visited the White House, while other Vietnamese officials have solicited a more active U.S. role in their country’s security.

Hanoi is moving closer to Washington’s priorities in other key areas. Last month, Vietnam announced it would participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), reversing its earlier opposition to the effort to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction promoted by the U.S. and its allies. The move opens the door for the two sides to conduct joint maritime surveillance, a potential partnership not lost on the Chinese.

Add to that bilateral discussions on defense, counterterrorism and law enforcement initiatives, and the road for a strategic U.S.-Vietnam connection appears more likely, analysts say.

To be sure, there is opposition here to a closer relationship between the two former enemies. And Washington still expects to see deeper reforms in Vietnam, especially in the area of human rights.

Despite China’s actions in the South China Sea, Vietnamese Politburo party conservatives are concerned about negative fallout from China if they move toward Washington.

“Many in Vietnam’s leadership are conscientious that China will always be at their country’s doorstep, even as the U.S. may waiver from the region. Hanoi does not want to provoke Beijing further if at all possible,” said Phuong Nguyen, research associate at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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