Defense cooperation between the United States and Vietnam is growing, but it is only one aspect of the growing relationship between the two countries, said Lindsey W. Ford, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia.

Ford spoke at the 2024 U.S.-Vietnam Conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.  

Ford said this is “a really fascinating time” to be working on this partnership, noting the upgrade of the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The past year “was unlike anything I’ve seen, and I think, from our perspective at the Defense Department, it provides us a really interesting opportunity to continue to grow on what has been very promising cooperation that we’ve been doing for decades,” she said. 

While Ford is a defense expert, she noted the relationship between the two nations encompasses many different fields. She also said that while the view of Vietnam is affected by the competition with China it is more than simply that. 

The United States and Vietnam share strategic interests, particularly on the economic side, that are truly important, she said. She noted the U.S. trade with Vietnam topped $130 billion in 2022. The trade provides large export markets in both directions. She also noted there are tight people-to-people ties between the nations. “There’s an awful lot more to this relationship than just what we’re doing on defense,” she said. “I think that that really bears mentioning because when you look at what we are doing, and what we are building our security partnership toward much of what it is centered around … allowing the United States and Vietnam to think together about how we can provide for the public good.” 

This covers the gamut of exercises between the two countries from maritime security to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This impacts all of Southeast Asia, she said. 

Ford credited the foundational work of U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War who forged “the legacy of war cooperation that we have together … is very unique about the U.S. Vietnam relationship.”

She said the veterans felt that it was really important to turn this relationship into a friendship and a partnership. 

On the defense side, the relationship began with recovery of those missing in action and has grown through the years. U.S. experts are working with Vietnamese officials to locate and identify their war dead.  

Overall, U.S.-Vietnamese defense ties have grown. Ford specifically spoke about the U.S. helping Vietnam train and equip for its U.N. mission supporting peace in South Sudan. Vietnam is exporting peace not only in the Indo-Pacific but globally, she said.

Other aspects include cooperation on disaster preparedness and recovery, responding to climate change disasters, establishing and running disaster management coordination centers, and most recently, building military medicine ties, which has been a growing area of cooperation. 

The United States worked closely with Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic sending vaccines and equipment to the country.  

In terms of emerging areas of cooperation, she noted the work between the two nations on maritime security. The situation in the Indo-Pacific is challenging. “We are doing a lot and want to continue helping Vietnam build its own maritime domain awareness capabilities, train its sailors to help address some of the harassment, but also [address] illegal fishing and other kinds of problems that we’re facing in the maritime domain,” she said. 

The United States and Vietnam are working together on cybersecurity programs. Both countries see this as a vulnerability and both work together to close those defenses.

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