The visit of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) to Danang, Vietnam, in March 2018 was far more than a routine ship visit. It was the first port call by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War, and it symbolized a healing of old wounds between the two nations. The event required strategic coordination with allies, acute geopolitical sensitivity, and engagement at the highest levels of both governments. My role as the U.S. naval attaché to Vietnam was to coordinate with Hanoi, Washington, and the fleet to bring it all together. This gave me a ringside seat to normally opaque Vietnamese government decision-making throughout the planning, coordination, and execution of the visit.
The lessons from this event are useful well beyond the Department of Defense. Historians, strategists, and students of Asia can study them to better understand Vietnam’s approach to achieving significant foreign policy objectives. Washington policy makers can use insights from the Carl Vinson visit to calibrate engagement with an important strategic partner that must balance its relationships with the great powers yet increasingly is willing to stand up to Chinese coercion and hedge in favor of closer relations with the United States.
Lesson One: America Second
Vietnam adeptly balances security relations with China and the United States. It is wary of conducting high-profile, precedent-setting events that would suggest bias toward either country. An aircraft carrier is one of the most potent symbols of U.S. firepower and strength. Therefore, a carrier port call could easily upset that balance. Hanoi addressed this concern head-on by ensuring the Carl Vinson was not the first aircraft carrier–type of ship to visit the country.
One year prior to the Carl Vinson visit, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer Izumo arrived in Vietnam as part of the annual U.S. Navy Pacific Partnership humanitarian assistance exercise. Not only did the Izumo provide Vietnam’s governmental agencies practical experience in supporting large-deck military ship visits, it also allowed Hanoi to offer future large-deck visits to all nations equally.
The United States did not need to “go first” in Vietnam with its carrier. Rather, Washington supported a precedent-setting event by a longtime ally. This allowed Hanoi to balance great power relationships and demonstrate the types of bilateral engagements Vietnam may be willing to conduct with the United States in the future.
Lesson Two: Senior Leader Visits Are Strategic Opportunities
Vietnam’s principle of balance extends to the number of senior military visits it affords to Washington and Beijing. The limited engagement opportunities underscore the importance of coordinated strategic messaging during each U.S. visit. Even the mention of a major objective of a future bilateral engagement event during a formal meeting can help push it through the cumbersome Vietnamese bureaucracy. Failing to mention it, however, may jeopardize the objective by inadvertently suggesting Washington does not consider it important.
Approval to conduct the Carl Vinson port call required senior U.S. leader engagement throughout the yearlong planning effort. Detailed planning began ten months prior to the visit, with a joint presidential statement that called for an aircraft carrier port call.1 In August 2017, the Secretary of Defense and his Vietnamese counterpart directed their staffs to work toward an agreement.2 Five months later, during a visit to Hanoi, then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis helped cement agreement for the event.3 Staff officers can coordinate details and plans, but they can only move an objective to the one-yard line. Senior leader talking points during bilateral exchanges help get objectives into the end zone.
Lesson Three: Do Not Forget Soft Power
While the hard power of a U.S. aircraft carrier speaks for itself, soft power also is an important foreign policy tool and was a key planning consideration for the carrier visit. Overemphasizing hard power could have complicated Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing and jeopardized future U.S. engagements. As such, the U.S. embassy team portrayed the carrier visit as one by a “floating city” instead of highlighting the carrier’s power-projection capabilities.
During the visit, sailors participated in professional exchanges that de-emphasized hard power. For example, some damage-control teams exchanged firefighting techniques with members of the Danang fire department. Navy culinary specialists learned how to prepare Vietnamese food and then provided a tour of the ship’s galley to demonstrate how the ship feeds thousands of sailors. The Seventh Fleet Band performed the 1970s Vietnamese song “Nối Vòng Tay Lớn” (“The Great Circle of Vietnam”) at concerts around town. The lyrics celebrate reconciliation between North and South Vietnam. When performed by U.S. Navy sailors, this song also represented a healing of old wounds—a message not lost on Vietnamese audiences. These exchanges fostered excitement about the visit throughout the city and enabled sailors to interact with individuals who might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit a U.S. aircraft carrier.
With today’s emphasis on training and warfighting, it is easy to overlook the importance of soft power. Using the port visit to employ this strategic tool contributed significantly to the visit’s success.
Lesson Four: Prioritize
Major security objectives with Vietnam require special attention, and Washington should expect other bilateral military relations with Hanoi to slow as a significant military engagement event nears. Too many low-level bilateral military activities in the months leading up to this important event could have derailed a major objective by triggering internal Vietnamese pressure to reinstitute balance in great power relations. U.S. ship visits to Vietnam in the 24 months leading up to the Carl Vinson port call illustrate how Hanoi addresses this challenge.
Starting in late 2003, the United States conducted one or two ship visits to Vietnam each year. However, with the opening of Cam Ranh International Port in 2016, the pace of Navy port calls rapidly increased. Thirteen Navy ships called on Vietnamese ports between July 2016 and August 2017. Hanoi then slowed the pace ahead of the Carl Vinson visit, and no Navy ships came to Vietnam in the six months preceding the carrier visit. The Pentagon can minimize future frustration over rejected military-to-military proposals by adopting an engagement strategy that mirrors the way Vietnam calibrates bilateral exchanges leading up to and after a major event.
Lesson Five: Remain Flexible
Vietnamese laws that constrain Navy policies regarding issues such as crew lists, force-protection measures, and overnight liberty were addressed prior to the ship’s arrival. Through creative diplomacy and communication, and because of Vietnam’s desire to make the visit a success, most friction points were resolved well ahead of time. However, while every conceivable issue seemingly was considered, one not foreseen was the abnormally late monsoon winds that created havoc in Danang Bay.
Late on the evening of the third night of the visit, strong winds created heavy swells in the harbor, making it impossible to transport sailors to and from the carrier. By midnight, 1,300 exhausted sailors were stranded at the pier. Vietnamese law prevented sailors from lodging at local hotels or departing the pier area. Senior diplomatic engagement, creative proposals, and frank discussions were not enough to get Vietnam to make an exception. As a result, the sailors spent the night on the pier, not returning to the carrier until the seas subsided early the next morning. The professionalism of Navy sailors and strike group leaders prevented this unforeseen weather disruption from marring the visit’s historic success.
Vietnam’s sluggish bureaucratic system can be unforgiving when unanticipated events occur. Vietnam and the United States will inevitably face challenges in executing major events, and maximum flexibility is needed to avoid frustration and ensure they are successful.
Applying the Lessons
The success of the Carl Vinson port call enabled the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) to be the second aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam, which took place in early March. Subsequent aircraft carrier port calls to Vietnam, at a periodicity acceptable to Hanoi, will help normalize these engagements. Japan in 2019 opened Vietnam’s door to submarine visits, when the Oyashio-class Kuroshio became the first foreign submarine to call on Vietnam.4 A future visit by a U.S. submarine could now be feasible.
Senior Navy leaders already have helped advance major maritime objectives with Vietnam this year. The Pacific Fleet commander visited Vietnam in March and announced the Navy’s Pacific Partnership humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercise would occur in Vietnam in July and that the United States would transfer a second Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam.5 Vietnam also may invite a top Navy officer to represent the United States at an International Maritime Review it plans to host as ASEAN chair later this year—although global coronavirus pandemic concerns may limit this year’s engagement opportunities.
The Carl Vinson port call opened doors to future major bilateral events. It also promoted closer collaboration with the United States in less visible ways. Future exchanges will have their own challenges, but applying lessons learned from the Carl Vinson visit will help smooth their planning and execution. Washington need not rush Hanoi to achieve new milestones or increase the frequency of exchanges. Hanoi gets it. Bilateral relations will deepen steadily—as long as Washington allows Hanoi to set the pace.
1. Office of the Press Secretary, “Joint Statement for Enhancing the Comprehensive Partnership between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” The White House, 31 May 2017, vn.usembassy.gov/20170601-united-states-vietnam-joint-statement-2017/.
2. Department of Defense, “Readout of Secretary Mattis’ Meeting with Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Lich,” 9 August 2017, www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/1272572/.
3. Department of Defense, “Readout of Secretary Mattis’ Meeting with Vietnam Minister of National Defense,” 25 January 2018, www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/1423285/readout-of-secretary-mattis-meeting-with-vietnam-minister-of-national-defense/.
4. “Japanese Submarine Visits Cam Ranh International Port,” VOVWorld, 17 September 2019, vovworld.vn/en-US/news/japanese-submarine-visits-cam-ranh-international-port-680708.vov.
5. The former USCGC Morgenthau was transferred in 2017. Department of State, “Transcript of the Telephonic Briefing with U.S. Navy Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet John C. Aquilino and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink,” 6 March 2020, www.state.gov/transcript-of-the-telephonic-briefing-with-u-s-navy-admiral-and-commander-of-the-u-s-pacific-fleet-john-c-aquilino-and-u-s-ambassador-to-vietnam-daniel-j-kritenbrink/.