'The place for you right now is Vietnam.' So President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel reportedly told the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and so originated the first visit by a top US military chief to Vietnam since 1971.

That historical event began yesterday when Dempsey met with his Vietnamese counterpart Lt Gen Do Ba Ty in Hanoi. In part, the visit is a piece of protocol, a return visit for one made by General Ty to Washington last year. However, the timing may allow for further cooperation between the erstwhile enemies.

Following an initial closed-door meeting, the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence hinted that closer military cooperation would take place. While relations have been increasingly strong (particularly on the economic front) since the 1995 normalisation of relations, military cooperation has been limited.

Dempsey's four-day visit – which also takes in meetings with the Prime Minister and Defense Minister – comes amid growing tensions in the region. After months of tensions and clashes, in July China's state-controlled oil company CNOOC withdrew its drilling rig from Vietnamese waters (Carl Thayer explained why here). For Beijing, it was a successful foray to test the resolve of the US and ASEAN (both failed to react strongly) and to alter the status quo. By the end of the crisis, the media had stopped reporting that the rig was in what international law considers to be Vietnam's EEZ, instead opting for 'disputed waters'. This irked many in the region and worried Vietnam's leadership.

As a result, there have been calls for Hanoi to distance itself from China's influence. Gary Sands, in a piece for Foreign Policy, argues that now is the time to re-engage Vietnam as it spins 'out of China's orbit'. As he explains, this view has been pushed by many in the Vietnam Communist Party.

But the story is more complex than binary ins-and-outs.

Hanoi has long pushed its brand of 'more friends, fewer enemies' foreign policy. Of course, a stronger American partnership now could be a counterweight to Chinese assertiveness and what some might see as a fitting punitive measure. But while this Pentagon visit offers a welcome window for greater cooperation with the US, it should not be overstated. Vietnam's 'orbit' is well populated. Indeed, that has been Vietnam's policy since 1988.

For Washington, there is probably also a concern not just about Beijing's recent assertiveness in the South China Sea but also of Russia's increasing ties with Hanoi. Moscow is a key ally and primary supplier of military hardware to Vietnam. Hanoi signed 17 separate agreements on military and economic ties with Russia during President Putin's visit in October last year. Hanoi has begun taking delivery of Russian Kilo-class submarines, Gepard class light frigates, and SU-30MK2 aircraft. This new capability may embolden Vietnam to take a more aggressive posture on its borders, a concern for all in the South China Sea.

Hanoi is also a key component of Russia's plans for a strong Eurasian Customs Union, seen by Russia as 'a vehicle to reintegrate the post-Soviet space', according to Chatham House. Vietnam is a key component of that Asia expansion, with eyes also on the South China Sea's best deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay (Russia previously leased a naval base in the Bay).

It is therefore no surprise that with the door ajar, the US may be keen to strengthen relations with Hanoi. Moreover, in sending a military leader, the US can largely avoid comment about Vietnam's human rights problems, which have created headlines recently. 

Photo courtesy of the US Defense Department.