Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Vietnam from 3 to 5 June 2012, right after attending the Shangri-La Conference in Singapore, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he explained America’s new defense strategy, detailed how the U.S. military supports that strategy by “rebalancing” toward the region, and articulated the reasoning behind Washington’s commitment to take a “deeper and more enduring partnership role in advancing the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.” Panetta moved the matter of America’s newly balanced attention to Asia into the dialogue between Washington and Vietnam, opening a thread in the bilateral dialogue over how to define and shape a bilateral strategic partnership.
His visit focused on identifying ways to take the first practical steps to carry out the September 2011 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for “advancing bilateral defense cooperation,” aimed at enhancing practical military cooperation, deepening training ties, and initiating formal joint exercise activities in five areas: maritime security cooperation, search and rescue cooperation, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) cooperation, humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) cooperation, and cooperation between defense universities and research institutes.
The day before his meeting with Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, Panetta told U.S. sailors aboard the USNS Robert Byrd in Cam Ranh Bay that access for United States naval ships to the facility at Cam Ranh was “a key component” of the bilateral defense relationship and one that pointed to “tremendous potential” for future cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam.
U.S. warships do not have access to the Cam Ranh harbor. Ships such as the Byrd, a cargo ship operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command manned by a largely civilian crew, have access to Cam Ranh. U.S. Navy warships have visited Vietnam in the context of normal and routine naval diplomacy, docking in Danang. Secretary Panetta’s reference in his remarks aboard the Byrd to the potential for future ship visits, including access for U.S. ships at Cam Ranh, suggest that he raised the U.S. desire to send more ships to Cam Ranh Bay in the future in his meetings with Vietnamese leaders.
Panetta’s vision of the role Vietnamese facilities would play in the context of the new, refocused U.S. defense strategy suggested something at least slightly beyond the existing routine of ship visits in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang and commercially based repair and refitting in Cam Ranh. He spoke of an increased number of U.S. ship visits to Vietnam and opportunities to “engage” in places like Cam Ranh, and used the term “creative rotational presence” to describe the sort of “opportunity” that would serve the new defense strategy. That may have been the Defense Secretary’s maximum position. If so, it came at the issue of facility access from a starting point diametrically opposed to the Vietnamese conception of the role Cam Ranh would play.
And it may have elicited from Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh his maximum position: U.S.-Vietnamese defense relations will be normalized at the point in time when the U.S. government supports the lifting of restrictions on the sale of lethal items to the Vietnamese military, and can thus play a role in the effort to modernize the People’s Army.
In the mid and late 1990s, as the process of the normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi moved forward – and in probably response to the notion that the allure of facility access was the driving force and key strategic rationale powering the pursuit of a more normal footing for relations with Vietnam – Hanoi studiously took the position that the question of access to Cam Ranh Bay or other facilities should not figure in efforts to gradually expand contacts and increase mutual awareness of one another’s defense and security policies and interests.
Importantly, Vietnam worked hard in the middle and late 1990s to discourage the view that a U.S. – Vietnamese relationship would afford Washington leverage or that a U.S. presence in Cam Ranh would offer the U.S. a strategic advantage in the region. Throughout these years Vietnam fastidiously maintained the priority focus on “diversifying” and expanding diplomatic relationships. During the late 1990s and through the first decade of the 2000s, Vietnam consistently argued that they would not become hostage to a single relationship ever again, that they would not become a pawn in the dynamics of relationships between big powers, and that they would develop a strictly sovereign foreign policy aimed at serving their goals of sustained economic development, improved trading opportunities, and regional stability.
With this as context, in early November 2010, western newspapers, including the Washington Post, announced that Vietnam was reopening its naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to foreign navies. However, Vietnam was very deliberate in portraying the decision to commercialize Cam Ranh as a step taken with the goal of enhancing regional stability, and an initiative that would not represent a balance of power issue because of the manner in which commercially available repair and refitting services would be offered to any and all – and the way the new facility would be separate from Vietnam’s military base at Cam Ranh. In an interview carried in the military’s daily newspaper on 1 November, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh said that all manner of ships from any country – aircraft carriers, submarines, etc. – would be serviced at the facility. Minister Thanh told reporters that the facilities would mainly serve Vietnam's own navy but services provided to foreign navies could help offset operating costs.
That provides some context for the joint press briefing conducted by Secretary Panetta and Defense Minister Thanh in early June, which is quite revealing. Panetta reviewed the strategic shift, and refocusing of attention on Asia, pointed to the historic first of his visit to Cam Ranh, and noted that the berthing of a U.S. ship for repairs at Cam Ranh signified the enhanced level of cooperation that characterized bilateral defense cooperation. And he singled out the establishment of an Office of Defense Cooperation as a key indicator of American seriousness about ratcheting up the level of practical bilateral defense engagement. He did not repeat his formula for more ship visits, more profound naval engagement, and enhanced access to Cam Ranh or other Vietnamese facilities.
For his part, in answer to a question from the international press at the joint briefing, Phung Quang Thanh stressed Vietnam’s interest in seeing the U.S. remove the restrictions on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, a decision he suggested would hold dividends for both the U.S. and Vietnam. He went beyond early references to Vietnamese plans and intentions regarding possible acquisition of U.S. weapons by noting his military’s interest in purchasing resources from the U.S. that would enable Vietnam to “overhaul” war booty, weapons left behind by the U.S. at the end of the war. And he noted that beyond this, future purchases of U.S. lethal weapons would be a function of Vietnam’s financial realities, the military’s requirements at the time such purchases become possible, and the extent to which U.S. systems would serve Vietnamese defense modernization goals. Most importantly, he reiterated the position that the removal of the restriction on sales of lethal systems to Vietnam would mark the “full normalization” of relations between the two countries. Thanh also was slightly more specific about Vietnam’s willingness to expand access to U.S. naval ships at Cam Ranh Bay, again in response to a question from the international press. Vietnam, he said, welcomes “logistic ships” of the U.S. that come to Vietnam seeking repairs at the commercial port at Cam Ranh, where they would find Vietnamese skilled labor at very competitive prices.
This was Thanh’s maximum position, and it suggests that the two big issues from the perspective of the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense have become, respectively, access to facilities and access to lethal systems through foreign military sales.
Panetta was the 4th Secretary of Defense to visit the Socialist Republic. In March 2000, William Cohen visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and secured an agreement to the first U.S. ship visit, which took place in late 2003 around the time of the visit to Washington by Defense Minister Pham Van Tra.
Donald Rumsfeld visited Vietnam in June 2006, and began the process of deepening U.S.-Vietnamese military relations. Rumsfeld discussed with his Defense Ministry hosts the possibility of Vietnam acquiring American demining equipment and military spare parts, broaching the subject of how Vietnam might play a role in international peacekeeping, heralding the first use of U.S. International Military Education and Training resources to fund English- language training at a United States military language school in San Antonio, Texas for two Vietnamese military officers, and paid attention to lingering “wounds of war” issues, including Agent Orange and the efforts to account for the fate and recover the remains of missing soldiers from both sides.
Robert Gates visited Vietnam in October 2011, capping off a push by the Pentagon to deepen defense cooperation and introduce a strategic component to bilateral defense engagement, beginning with the August 2010 inaugural Defense Policy Dialogue, a high-level channel for direct military-to-military discussions, the first U.S.-Vietnam joint naval engagement, involving noncombat training on board the USS John S. McCain in August 2010 while it was berthed at DaNang (a second exercise of this type was held in July 2011); the first use of Vietnamese shipyards to repair two U.S. Military Sealift Command ships; and the 2011 enrollment of a Vietnamese officer in U.S. National War College.
Secretary’s Panetta’s visit attempted to breathe life into the September 2011 MOU. He took the first steps toward adding substance to the notion of a “strategic partnership,” and what that would mean in the realm of defense and security cooperation. The MOU document spoke to the principles of cooperation, essentially enshrining the Vietnamese preoccupation with friendship, trust, mutual respect and non-alignment (“independence, self-reliance and sovereignty”), and reiterating the U.S. concern that the relationship be mutually beneficial and resonate positively with regional defense and security equities. The MOU provided a “framework” for cooperation aimed at expanding practical bilateral engagement in the defense and security realm, called for the promotion of a “common vision” for defense cooperation, and the establishment of a “mechanism” to identify and implement new areas for defense cooperation, which could be as simple as the existing interagency paraphernalia for policy decision-making, or the emergence of an ad-hoc working level alliance of Defense, State and PACOM planners and policy advisors who will do the brunt of the coordination. The meeting between Panetta and Thanh galvanized discussion of the need to implement this understanding in a manner that serves the broader goal of defining the basis for strategic level interaction. Finally, the meetings between Secretary Panetta and Minister Thanh authoritatively made the strategic requirements of each side — including the possibility of joint and combined training, facility access (and the place that Cam Ranh Bay will occupy in that equation), and support for the modernization of PAVN — part of the discussion of what strategic cooperation between Washington and Hanoi will look like.
 In making his point, Panetta spoke of the importance of force projection and detailed the U.S. military’s commitment to investing in specific kinds of capabilities – such as an advanced fifth-generation fighter, an enhanced Virginia-class submarine, new electronic warfare and communications capabilities, and improved precision weapons – which the Secretary argued would “ provide our forces with freedom of maneuver in areas in which our access and freedom of action may be threatened. Interestingly, the Vietnamese were particularly attentive to the portion of the defense secretary’s speech in which he noted America’s recognition that the challenges of operating over the Pacific’s vast distances would require investment in new aerial-refuelling tankers, a new bomber, and advanced maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft as well as the development of new concepts of operation detailed in the Joint Operational Access Concept and long term efforts to articulate new Air-Sea Battle concepts. See "Mỹ tăng sự hiện diện tại châu Á-Thái Bình Dương," Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 2 June 2012, 9:48 (GMT+7) [‘America Deepens Modernization in Asia/Southeast Asia [http://www.qdnd.vn/qdndsite/vi-VN/61/43/3/102/102/191444/Default.aspx]
 http://news.yahoo.com/panetta-wants-more-us-access-vietnam-harbor-113628267.html; http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/06/03/panetta-urges-for-more-us-naval-access-to-vietnam-harbor/?test=latestnews
 In addition, the U.S. armed forces would develop the capability to defeat more than one enemy at a time, and the U.S. would invest” “We’ll invest in cyber. We’ll invest in new technologies. We’ll invest in unmanned systems. We’ll invest in space. We’ll invest in Special Forces. And we’ll invest in the ability to mobilize quickly.” “Secretary Panetta Speaking to the Crew of USNS Byrd in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam,” U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs, News Transcript, 3 June 2012, http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5050
 “Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Vietnamese Minister of Defense Gen. Phung Quang Thanh,” U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs, News Transcript, 4 June 2012, http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5052
 “Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Vietnamese Minister of Defense Gen. Phung Quang Thanh,” U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs, News Transcript, 4 June 2012, http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5052. Also see Nguyen Vu, “Việt Nam và Mỹ tăng cường hợp tác quốc phòng,” Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 4 June 2012, 21:47 (GMT+7), http://www.qdnd.vn/qdndsite/vi-VN/61/43/10/50/50/191824/Default.aspx.
 Michael R. Gordon, “An Upbeat Rumsfeld and Vietnam Agree to Broaden Ties,” The New York Times, 5 June 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/05/world/asia/05cnd-rumsfeld.html
 Mark Manyin, “U.S.-Vietnam Relations in 2011: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, 18 May 2012, 7-5700, R40208. www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40208.pdf; Stern, “U.S.-Vietnam Defense Relations: Deepening Ties, Adding Relevance,” Strategic Forum, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Number 241, September 2009. Also see Stern, “Toward A U.S.-Vietnamese Strategic Partnership: Enhancing Defense Relations,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asia Policy Blog, 24 May 2012, http://cogitasia.com/toward-a-u-s-vietnamese-strategic-partnership-enhancing-defense-relations/ ; “Adding Strategic Depth to U.S.-Vietnamese Defense Relations,” StratFor Global Intelligence: Other Voices, 17 May 2012, [http://www.stratfor.com/other-voices/adding-strategic-depth-us-vietnamese-defense-relations]; and “National Defense University: Building Strategic Relations with Vietnam,” Joint Forces Quarterly, April 2012.
Dr. Lewis M. Stern served ten years in the Central Intelligence Agency, and for twenty years as a Southeast Asian specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He retired from the federal government in 2010. In 2012 he began teaching about contemporary Vietnam in the Department of Political Science, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA.