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Why the US Should Cooperate More Closely With Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry

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Why the US Should Cooperate More Closely With Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry

Small arms procurements for internal security agencies could be a step toward more substantial purchases of U.S. hardware for Vietnam’s military.

Why the US Should Cooperate More Closely With Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vietnamese Minister of Public Security To Lam elbow as a greeting ahead of a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, October 30, 2020.

Credit: Hoang Thong Nhat/VNA via AP

On March 11, Reuters reported that several U.S. firms led by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council visited Hanoi to broker a deal that would facilitate the supply of gear to Vietnam’s police. It was the largest U.S. business delegation to Vietnam after the elevation of U.S.-Vietnam ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in September. Although the details of the meeting between the Council and Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) were not made public, after the meeting Deputy Minister Luong Tam Quang encouraged the Council to assist Vietnam enhance its cyber defense capabilities and modernize the Ministry’s equipment and capabilities. Earlier in March, Vietnam’s Public Security Minister To Lam met U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper. Both sides expressed support for more cooperation between Vietnamese and U.S. law enforcements under the framework of the U.S.-Vietnam CSP.

U.S. cooperation with Vietnam’s MPS does not receive as much attention as its engagements with Vietnam’s military. U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation is often measured in the number of patrol boats or cutters that Washington transfers to Vietnam, the frequency and number of visits to Vietnamese ports by U.S. aircraft carriers, or the political significance of military agreements between the two sides. However, a more holistic analysis would take the MPS’ role in developing U.S.-Vietnam relations more seriously. In contrast with the military, which is tasked with defending Vietnam’s external security, the MPS is responsible for the country’s internal security. The MPS assumes two important roles in Vietnam’s security policies. First, it ensures that the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) can maintain internal unity and political stability against foreign interference and domestic opposition. Second, the MPS makes security recommendations to the CPV and contributes to the people’s warfare doctrine.

Importantly, the CPV treats both the military and the MPS as two arms serving the same purpose: ensuring the survival of a CPV-led Vietnam against all opposition, foreign or domestic. In addition to enhancing cooperation with Vietnam’s military to balance against China, the U.S. thus needs to recognize the importance of engaging the MPS to assuage Hanoi’s fear of a U.S.-backed “color revolution.” At a time when China is exerting pressure on Vietnam to not cooperate too closely with the U.S. on defense matters, cooperation between the U.S. and the MPS would also provide an alternative channel for low-key security cooperation with no less political significance.

It is not surprising that as Vietnam’s external situation evolves, the MPS, simultaneously with the military, is undergoing a period of force modernization to prepare for new forms of subversion. The CPV recognizes that as the country is opening itself more to the world, “hostile forces” could exploit the opening to undermine the CPV’s authority, and that the task of ensuring internal security is now even more important. Vietnam’s Politburo passed Resolution 12-NQ/TW in March 2022 on modernizing the police force to better meet requirements and carry out missions under “new circumstances.” In June 2022, Vietnam’s National Congress passed a law on the responsibility of the Mobile Police Force (Cảnh Sát Cơ Động), affirming again that they have the authority to use force to crack down on domestic unrest and terrorism. The law also called for purchases of helicopters and airplanes to equip the Mobile Police Force.

In July 2023, Vietnam issued Directive 24 on tightening the CPV’s domestic authority, as Hanoi upgraded relations with the U.S. and its allies. Directive 24 does not signal any fundamental changes in Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policies, but it confirms that Vietnam must tighten internal control while the country is expanding its diplomatic network. In March, the MPS admitted that its equipment, which was procured before the 1990s, is aging, as most of the equipment either came from the former Soviet bloc or was captured during the country’s recent conflicts. The MPS wants to modernize its weapons arsenal as quickly as possible between 2024 and 2026. This explains why the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council led a delegation to Vietnam to explore equipment deals with the MPS.

The prospect of the U.S. supplying arms and other equipment to the MPS can help advance U.S.-Vietnam ties on two major fronts. In terms of weapons, the MPS does not need big-ticket items like the military does, and Vietnam is in a better position to buy small arms from the U.S., such as gear, drones, or robots, than pricey weapons such as the F-16s. As a country relying heavily on Soviet arms for both its military and police, Vietnam needs to become familiar with U.S. arms incrementally. Starting with small arms purchases for the police will be a necessary first step for Vietnam to get hands-on experience with U.S. arms. Importantly, buying a great number of small arms is in line with Vietnam’s people’s warfare doctrine. During the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, Vietnam relied on mobile guerilla units to defend its garrisons along the China-Vietnam border. The successful execution of a “porcupine strategy” calls not for the reliance on big-ticket military items but for good use of “anti-access” small arms.

The political significance of those small arms deals cannot be underestimated. The U.S. equipping Vietnam’s police to help Hanoi maintain its internal security against “hostile forces” is a concrete signal that Washington respects the CPV’s domestic authority beyond recognizing CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong as the counterpart of U.S. President Joe Biden. It also demonstrates that the U.S. does not consider human rights a major impediment to U.S.-Vietnam ties despite the State Department’s annual human rights reports and some watchers expressing concerns for human rights if the U.S. sells arms to Vietnam’s police. Cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnamese law enforcements would also affirm the U.S. pledge to assist Hanoi crack down on terrorist organizations that Hanoi claimed to be based in the U.S., after the Dak Lak attacks in June 2023. Frequent dialogues between the U.S. and the MPS would be a step in the right direction.

To be clear, China would likely react negatively to any arms deals between the U.S. and Vietnam, regardless of whether those arms are for the military or police. But the nature of the police as an internal security force would help Vietnam reassure China that those small arms sales would not be directed against China, especially when they are not suitable for fighting a hypothetical naval war. For Vietnam, buying small arms to equip the police would not attract as much unnecessary attention as buying F-16s to equip its military. Vietnam can cultivate defense ties with the U.S. with the least amount of Chinese skepticism.

Vietnam’s reliance on Russian arms imposes some degree of constraint on the kinds of arms it can procure from the United States. Still, that does not mean U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation cannot move forward at all. U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation will have to begin with small arms purchases and political dialogues between law enforcement agencies before big-ticket purchases between the militaries. This gradual diversification away from Russian arms will be better in line with Vietnam’s non-aligned foreign policy than Hanoi immediately buying U.S. big-ticket weapons. And from a political perspective, the U.S. can only improve relations with Vietnam if it can make the CPV feel safe at home by helping and respecting the Vietnamese police’s efforts to modernize its arsenal.