A woman covers her bicycle from the rain as she rides past the Hue Imperial Palace in central Vietnam's city of Hue on October 17, 2020.

A woman covers her bicycle from the rain as she rides past the Hue Imperial Palace in central Vietnam's city of Hue on October 17, 2020. AFP via Getty Images / Manan Vatsyayana

The US Military Should Return to Vietnam

Recent conditions—and China’s provocative actions—have set the stage for a new relationship.

Fifty years ago, the New York Times and Washington Post published the “Pentagon Papers.” These documents revealed grave doubts about the intentions and motivations for America’s engagement in Vietnam. Still today, for many Americans, the country of Vietnam is a painful reminder of the Vietnam War, and many remain skeptical as to the benefits of a strengthened Vietnamese-American relationship. 

However, as the memory of the war slips further into the past and new geopolitical concerns emerge, the United States should examine deepening ties with Vietnam and consider returning American forces there in the near future.

Many Americans are not aware of Vietnam’s history after the U.S. military withdrew from the country, 18 months after the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The fighting did not end with the removal of U.S. forces or the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam to communist control. Vietnam in 1979 fought China in yet another bloody and equally tragic war, and the repercussions of that war are much more profound in modern geopolitical relations today than U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

China has become a geopolitical rival to Vietnam’s interests. Starting in 2015, China has built and militarized several artificial islands in the South China Sea. These islands were not only built adjacent to Vietnam, but were constructed in territorial waters claimed by Vietnam. China’s increasing aggression and claims in the South China Sea threaten global commerce and American interests, as well as Vietnam’s security and sovereignty.

China’s ownership claim, in blatant disregard for international law, places American and Vietnamese strategic interests increasingly in alignment with respect to the South China Sea. America recognizes the danger to not only global commerce, but stability of the Asia-Pacific’s Westernized democracies with a steadily more belligerent China. Vietnam recalls the bitter war it fought with China, and sees China threatening its independence and security from its own territorial waters.

As a part of the Vietnam War effort, the United States built several major military facilities in Vietnam in the 1960s; all are strategically positioned to deter China’s aggression in the South China Sea and assure regional U.S. allies. The U.S. and Vietnam should consider the return of American military forces to these facilities in the next 5 to 10 years; such a move would also bolster Vietnam’s ability to resist coercion from China. After a series of high level diplomatic overtures in the last decade, the U.S. and Vietnam should now engage in more active and detailed staff level discussions about a return of U.S. forces to Vietnam.           

Now is the time to act. The 2019 defense white paper published by the Vietnamese government softened the country’s previously rigid stance on remaining neutral, and now allows for military alliances if deemed prudent. Economically, Vietnam is still dependent on Chinese imports and exports, but it is much less dependent on China than its neighbors. The Vietnamese government is notably less susceptible to corruption than other nations in the region. These conditions set the stage for a gradual strengthening of the U.S. and Vietnamese economic and military relationship, which would be necessary before any discussion of basing U.S. forces in Vietnam could begin. Provocative acts by China in the South China Sea work to hasten the deepening of these U.S.-Vietnam ties, but should be followed with proactive U.S. actions. The U.S. and Vietnam should start now to build closer relations.

Initially, units such as rotational, forward-deployed U.S. naval forces requiring little initial infrastructure could operate out of Vietnam in response to Chinese actions. Although likely not an option in near-term due to current Vietnamese neutrality, the U.S. could also pursue additional infrastructure or a permanent U.S. base.

The U.S. fought a bitter war in Vietnam, but modern geopolitical dynamics increasingly align the two nations’ interests. This presents an opportunity for broad cooperation and an opportunity to specifically coordinate U.S.-Vietnam actions as a response to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Increasing the U.S. military presence in Vietnam is one way to seize this opportunity. Nearly 50 years after the war ended, the U.S. and Vietnam have an opportunity to rebuild a more honest and mutually beneficial security relationship with one another.

This editorial reflects the opinion of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.

Charles Djou is a former member of Congress who served on the House Armed Services Committee and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. Matthew Powell is a commander in the U.S. Navy.