Gordon Campbell on Leon Panetta, and gunboat access diplomacy

See if you can guess the name of the country that the Stratfor think tank is talking about here. Hint: it is a country that has had a long running dispute about access to its ports by US warships, but is in discussions with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to explore a way of putting this dispute behind them, in the aim of fostering greater security co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region:

During the late 1990s and through the first decade of the 2000s, [this country] consistently argued that they would….develop a strictly sovereign foreign policy aimed at serving their goals of sustained economic development, improved trading opportunities, and regional stability.

Moreover, as Stratfor adds, the US recently signed a declaration in the capital of this country, a document that sought to advance bilateral defence co-operation with these goals in mind:

‘….enhancing practical military cooperation, deepening training ties, and initiating formal joint exercise activities in five areas: maritime security cooperation, search and rescue cooperation, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) cooperation, humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) cooperation, and cooperation between defense universities and research institutes.

Yep, that sounds like New Zealand doesn’t it? Sounds like the so called “Wellington Declaration” document unveiled during the recent visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the country in question is actually Vietnam. For decades, US warships have been barred from docking at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, and Leon Panetta visited Hanoi in June to try and reach an agreement whereby US warships would get full access to the docking facilities there. This would be in line with the general US desire to “re-balance” its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, mindful of the growing military, economic and diplomatic clout of China.

Vietnam offers us a few clues about how to drive a hard bargain if we do happen to decide – in the talks that Leon Panetta is having today with his New Zealand counterpart, Jonathan Coleman – to relax, or to compartmentalise our nuclear ships ban for the greater good of regional co-operation. If we give the US anything, we need to get something substantial and concrete for doing so. Vietnam, for example, has made it clear it isn’t going to give away a prime negotiating card without getting something very, very substantial in return. Like New Zealand under successive governments, Vietnam has done its best to fence off the warships access question from its other points of agreement with the Americans:

Hanoi studiously took the position that the question of access to Cam Ranh Bay or other facilities should not figure in efforts to gradually expand contacts and increase mutual awareness of one another’s defense and security policies and interests.

What I’m getting at here is that the US in general and Panetta in particular have a vast amount of experience with diplomacy over the prickly issue of warship access to potential strategic partners. Right now, Vietnam is asking a heavy price for any further normalization of the relationship. As a bottom line, it wants the US to agree to modernise and re-equip Vietnam’s armed forces, at bargain prices. Even then, it has made it clear that there would be no diplomatic consequences resulting from any relaxation that might conceivably occur in future on the warships access point. That’s mainly because Vietnam feels it has worked too hard to create an independent foreign policy stance to give it all away to the Americans on the Cam Ranh access issue:

Importantly, Vietnam worked hard in the middle and late 1990s to discourage the view that a U.S. – Vietnamese relationship would afford Washington leverage or that a U.S. presence in Cam Ranh would offer the U.S. a strategic advantage in the region. Throughout these years Vietnam fastidiously maintained the priority focus on “diversifying” and expanding diplomatic relationships

So should we. Our independent foreign policy and our trade and diplomacy relationship with China are too important to endanger. We know the Chinese are paying close attention to any signs of concession. Only yesterday, in media reports on Panetta’s talks with the next Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the warships access question in Vietnam arose:

However, the message [of US benign intentions] is difficult to sell to a sceptical Chinese audience concerned about US missile defences in Japan, expanding military ties with the Philippines and suspicion that the US wants military access to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

Jonathan Coleman should resist any impulse to give Panetta a nudge and a wink over ships access, or significantly closer regional defence ties. We should be looking at how tough Vietnam has been in playing its cards with Panetta, and deal accordingly today.