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Why US Arms Control Envoy Made a Beeline for Vietnam on Brief Asia Trip

In this Sept. 9, 2020, image provided by the U.S. Air Force, is Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control, center, and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, right, walking with Air Force…
In this Sept. 9, 2020, image provided by the U.S. Air Force, is Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control, center, and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, right, walking with Air Force…

Washington’s point person on arms control visited Vietnam, a Communist war rival five decades ago, for meetings about perceived threats from China because Vietnamese officials hold positions in key international bodies and align ever more closely with the West, experts say.

U.S. presidential arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea met Vietnamese officials Thursday to discuss Chinese offshore expansion, including fears of a growing nuclear arsenal, he told reporters. The envoy had visited traditional U.S. allies Japan and South Korea on the same trip.

“We know that the United States has recognized Vietnam’s strategic potential in Asia and that the strategic potential of Vietnam is increasing with the competition between the United States and China, so I should think a lot of discussion would be revolved around the larger balance of power in the region, including the South China Sea,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

Vietnam this year became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) negotiating bloc, attractions for the U.S. delegation, analysts say. Vietnamese leaders have opened already to other high-level U.S. visits, arms sales from Western ally India and ports-of-call by the Australian navy.

“We have solicited their advice on how to use multilateral mechanisms because…when it comes to what the Chinese are doing, this is not simply about great power competition,” Billingslea told a telephone news briefing Friday.

Vietnam, like the United States, resents Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. Chinese sovereignty claims to about 90% of the waterway overlap those of Vietnam, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines – all militarily weaker than China.

The United States fought for 12 years against Vietnam's Communist forces, which were on their way to taking over the Southeast Asian country’s south. U.S. forces pulled out in 1973 and Communist forces took over all of Vietnam in 1975.

Today's Communist officials in Hanoi still have a unique party-to-party relationship with China as well as access to North Korea, a fellow Communist state that has outraged U.S. officials.

The U.S. may be looking to Vietnam for tips on how to approach North Korea at a series of Asian leadership meetings set for late 2020, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Vietnam, he said, would be able to size up the views of other ASEAN states and check in on Pyongyang.

“The significance is that the U.S. sees Vietnam as a player that one can exchange ideas with, that can canvas the region of the ASEAN members but is at the U.N. as well and that has a relationship with North Korea that many other countries don’t have,” Thayer said.

North Korea irks the United States by test-firing missiles near Japan and South Korea. Meetings in 2018 and 2019 between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to stop the tests.

U.S. arms control envoys seldom bring up their top agenda item, denuclearization, with smaller countries, Vuving said. Vietnam has missile defense systems but no nukes. It operates the world’s 22nd most powerful armed forces, according to the database.

China was the chief talking point, Billingslea said on the media call Friday. “We are talking about a dangerous, revisionist power that is engaged…in a secretive nuclear weapons buildup and a massive missile production program,” Billingslea said. China has reneged on promises related to peace in the disputed sea, he added, and Beijing “challenges” freedom of navigation.

The envoy linked North Korea to “a number of significant challenges with regard to nuclear weapons.”

Chinese landfilling of disputed South China Sea islets – some for military use – through 2017 rattled the other five claimants, including an ever-outspoken Vietnam. Chinese vessels have passed through the ocean economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia this year. Claimant countries value the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea for its fisheries and energy reserves.

Washington has no claims to the sea but wants to stop rival world superpower China from gaining too much control offshore, analysts have said.

The U.S. government in 2016 lifted a wartime embargo on selling Vietnam lethal weapons. The envoy now sees Vietnam as “instrumental” in checking Chinese actions because of its serial protests to Beijing, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Billingslea probably wants Japan, South Korea and Vietnam to push back together against China, Nagy said.

“I think that if they can get (Vietnam) on the same page of the book, that this will be important in terms of drawing the red lines such that China will cease, or pull back or stop being engaging in such provocative behavior in the Indo-Pacific region in general,” Nagy said.