Vietnam becoming key to US “pivot”

A show of cordiality as John Kerry and Dinh The Huynh meet in Washington.

A show of cordiality as John Kerry and Dinh The Huynh meet in Washington.

Vietnam and the United States have again signalled their commitment to closer cooperation over the South China Sea at a time of growing questions about the credibility of US strategy in the region.

The statement came during talks in Washington between the Secretary of State, John Kerry, and a senior member of the Vietnamese Communist party, Dinh The Huynh.

Mr Huynh, as executive secretary on the Central Committee, is see as a rising star in the party hierarchy.

“We began a number of new initiatives in terms of emergency response, counter terrorism cooperation, and strengthening our ability to stand up for rule of law in the South China Sea,” said Mr Kerry during a joint appearance after their talks.

“We are working on all of these initiatives now as we strengthen the relationship between the United States and Vietnam, which has really gone through an extraordinary evolution,” he added.

Vietnam is becoming ever more crucial to the US position in Southeast Asia, given the apparent determination of the Philippines to ditch the US alliance in favour of better ties with China.

President Duterte’s diplomatic reversal, if seen through, threatens to pull the rug out from under the US position in the South China Sea. The US has used Philippine bases, as well as the moral and legal authority of Manila’s position on territorial disputes, to stand up for what it calls “freedom of navigation” against Beijing’s extravagant claims to territorial waters.

Uncertainty generated by the US presidential election, and doubts that the TPP trade agreement will be ratified, have also undercut the US position.

Analysts say that Washington’s credibility in East Asia depends upon its ability to secure ratification of the TPP , seen as unlikely given the prevailing political climate, and to show that it can stand up to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Mr Kerry mentioned the importance of human rights and freedoms during his talks with Mr Huynh.

However, political reform in Vietnam has become less of priority in Washington as policy makers increasingly look to a strong Vietnam to resist the growing ambition and diplomatic successes of China.

Mr Hyunh made a similar visit to China just last month – a sign that the Communist party is anxious to avoid a breach in relations with Beijing, even as it seeks security and more trusting ties with Washington and other western countries.