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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich at the Pentagon, Washington, Aug. 8, 2017 (AP photo by Andrew Harnik).

Vietnam Looks for Help in Standing Up to Beijing in the South China Sea

Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017

Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich’s visit to Washington in early August was just the latest sign of the remarkable progress made in security ties between the United States and Vietnam over the past decade. But it also underscored the limits of how much Hanoi is willing to cozy up to Washington today, and how unconvinced it remains of the Trump administration’s commitment to Asia.

The trip exemplified Hanoi’s multidirectional foreign policy, which rests on maintaining strong relations with many outside partners to avoid dominance by any one, and of how that strategy is evolving to face the growing threat Vietnam perceives from its northern neighbor, China. For Hanoi, the United States plays an increasingly significant role. Looking at the breadth of today’s relationship, it is easy to forget that it has barely been 20 years since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. The bilateral relationship during the 1990s and 2000s focused heavily on tackling legacy issues from the war, people-to-people exchanges, and boosting economic ties. At the start of the Obama administration, the notion of direct arms sales, joint training or U.S. warship visits to Vietnamese ports were all long-term hopes, not short-term deliverables. But the calculus in both capitals changed rapidly with the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea starting around 2009. ...

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