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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief

ABN # 65 648 097 123


U.S. Defense Secretary to Visit
Vietnam - 2
October 15, 2018

The media has reported that U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis will make his
second official visit to Vietnam from 15-16 October. We request your analysis of the
following issues:
Q1. This is the second official visit by the U..S Defence Secretary to Vietnam in nine
months. James Mattis also met his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich four times
this year. What is your assessment? Does this have any special meaning?
ANSWER: Secretary Mattis’ visit to Vietnam is part of a trip that includes his
attendance at the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus in Singapore and that
originally included a visit to China. The China visit has been cancelled.
It is clear from the U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy
that the United States views Vietnam as an important strategic partner.
Vietnam’s importance will increase when it becomes ASEAN Chair in 2020 and when
it is elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Q2. What does the frequency of Mattis’ visits represent in U.S. and Vietnam
relations?
ANSWER: Secretary Mattis put a high value on personal relations especially with his
Vietnamese counterpart Minister of National Defence General Ngo Xuan Lich.
When Secretary Mattis made his first visit to Vietnam in January he said he had
come to listen. During his present visit Secretary Mattis is likely to propose steps for
future defence cooperation including further support for Vietnam in UN
peacekeeping such as the UN Mission in South Sudan, capacity building to enhance
Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness and future ship visits to Vietnamese ports.
Q3. Secretary Mattis will visit Bien Hoa airport and meet Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich. What is
the purpose of this meeting and what will Mattis and Gen. Lich discuss?
ANSWER: By visiting Bien Hoa Secretary Mattis is acknowledging the importance
Vietnam places on addressing war legacy issues such as Agent Orange. Mattis will
reaffirm U.S. commitment to assist Vietnam in addressing this issue. Mattis will
renew his personal relationship with General Lich.
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Secretary Mattis is likely to raise the sensitive issue of legislation passed by the U.S.
Congress called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
This law includes provisions for sanctioning countries that procure weapons from
Russian defence companies. Secretary Mattis has sought a waiver for Vietnam and
India and the result of his request is not known at this stage.
Q4. Recently, Vietnam military has undertaken many co-operative activities with
other countries such as deploying Frigate 015-Tran Hung Dao of the Vietnam
People’s Navy to the Port of Sakai in Osaka and to participate in an international
fleet review at sea off South Korea. Several warships from the UK, Canada and a
Japanese submarine also made a port calls to Vietnam. Especially, the UK warship
patrol in South China Sea before visiting Vietnam. Do you think there is any shift in
how Vietnam approaches South China Sea issues?
ANSWER: Vietnam has always welcomed friendly visits by foreign warships to its
ports. In September there were a record number of port visits including from South
Korea, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, India and New Zealand. In addition, Vietnam
sent one of its most modern warships to visit Japan, take part in an international
fleet review in South Korea, and participate in a China-ASEAN exercise.
Vietnam is clearly stepping up defence diplomacy through engagement with foreign
navies. Vietnam is signaling that maritime powers are stakeholders in the security of
the South China Sea.
Q5. In this time some observers fear that the tension in the South China Sea will
escalate because of the U.S.-China trade war. What do you expect will occur in the
South China Sea in the time ahead? How will Beijing react to Mattis’ visit?
ANSWER: In coming months there are likely to be more incidents between Chinese
warships and the U.S. Navy as Washington steps up freedom of navigation
operational patrols in the South China Sea and conducts naval exercises with its allies
and partners. So far the trade war between China and the United States has been
kept quarantined from the South China Sea dispute. Now the deterioration in
bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington are likely to impact on the South
China Sea. Vice President Mike Pence recently gave a speech that was highly critical
of China on a number of issues. This reflects the U.S. Nation Security Strategy that
clearly identified China as an adversary.
China is now likely to pressure Vietnam and other ASEAN members not to side with
the United States. China could also delay negotiations on a Code of Conduct by
arguing that the U.S. is responsible for threatening China’s security.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “U.S. Defense Secretary to Visit Vietnam - 2,”
Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 15, 2018. All background briefs are
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.