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Handbook 10-51
July 2010

Chapter 6



U.S.-Vietnam Defense Relations: Deepening Ties, Adding Relevance   Lewis M. Stern

Unlocking Russian interests on the Korean Peninsula   Major John W. Bauer

Fires in the Pacific’s Theater Security Cooperation Plan   COL Jack K. Pritchard

U.S.-Vietnam Defense Relations: Deepening Ties, Adding Relevance

Lewis M. Stern

Reprinted with permission from the September 2009 issue of National Defense University Strategic Forum.

Normal defense relations between the United States and Vietnam emerged from discussions conducted from mid-1995 to late 1996. The first years of interaction between the American and Vietnamese defense establishments revolved around learning about one another, developing a common language, becoming accustomed to the differences in how the respective ministries managed policy and exercised authority, and learning to work with the personalities on both sides who were the mainstay of the relationship. At the outset, the Vietnamese were suspicious, conservative, and not inclined to move beyond argument about the "legacy issues," such as the effects of Agent Orange and alleged U.S. Government support to anti-regime organizations.

In 2000-2004, the United States made the first efforts to modestly expand the scope and pace of defense engagement. Vietnamese military reluctance to ratchet up activities that smacked of close defense cooperation did not altogether preclude defense ministry officials from recognizing the dividends that could derive from the relationship with the U.S. military, and organizing for at least gradual shifts in views that enabled new types of engagement in the early 2000s. During his March 2000 visit to Hanoi, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Defense Minister Pham Van Tra agreed that ship visits would be a positive aspect of a gradually expanding plan for military engagement. Following that visit, on the instructions of the minister, the Vietnamese defense ministry entered into a long series of technical discussions with U.S. Pacific Fleet representatives that, in late 2003, enabled the first U.S. Navy ship port call in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton's November 2003 visit to Vietnam sustained that momentum, focused on the successes of demining cooperation, and legitimized high-level discussions aimed at managing wartime legacy issues in a more effective fashion.

The bilateral defense relationship with Vietnam developed in three phases. The first phase, from initial contacts during which the notion of defense normalization was broached in 1995-1996 to the preparations for the March 2000 visit of then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen, was characterized by Vietnamese caution regarding U.S. intentions, and matching reservations in Washington plus a concern regarding the importance of preserving the prisoner of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) priority focus.

In the second phase, from 2000 to 2004, the United States took the first efforts to modestly expand the scope and pace of defense engagement. The Vietnamese clarified the more rigid aspects of their position on enhanced defense relations, dug in their heels, and resisted anything beyond the most symbolic forward movement in defense relations.

In the third phase, from 2005 to 2007, the United States began to look for ways to broaden defense interaction with Vietnam, believing that the new activities could be easily integrated into the existing plan, and that shared concerns for the well being of Southeast Asia and a common approach to broad transitional issues in the region suggested a natural basis for strategic community between Hanoi and Washington. The Vietnamese defense establishment began to explore steps that could enhance the relationship, take military-to-military engagement to the next level, and infuse some real strategic content into the defense relationship.

First Overtures

Discussions conducted between mid1995 and late 1996 produced a foundation for normal defense relations between the United States and Vietnam. Formal military to military relations were initiated in November 1996, a year after government-to-government normalization, though Hanoi had taken some earlier steps toward rapprochement including the accreditation of a U.S. Defense Attaché in December 1995. The first real steps toward military-to-military relations were halting, modest, and cautious, revolving around mutually agreed initiatives that were constrained in scope and deliberately low key in nature.1

In the first phase, Vietnam's defense ministry was reluctant to be drawn into activities that regional observers could interpret as a firm and warm embrace of the fledgling defense relationship, and the U.S. Government focused tightly on economic, trade, consular, and diplomatic normalization. The Vietnamese defense ministry was perfectly content to keep the pace constrained and scope modest, and the Department of Defense (DOD) was prepared to stick with an exploratory approach that fixed on benign, uncontroversial areas of focus as the starting point for bilateral military engagement.

The first years of interaction between the Vietnamese and U.S. defense establishments revolved around learning about one another, developing a common language, becoming accustomed to the differences in how the respective ministries managed policy and exercised authority, and learning to work with the personalities on both sides who were the mainstay of the relationship. The startup U.S.-Vietnamese defense relationship in 1997 consisted of three types of activities: U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM)-hosted, Title 10 funded multilateral conferences and seminars; senior level visits; and practical bilateral cooperation in areas such as search and rescue; military medicine environmental security, and demining.

The parameters of this relationship were defined early. In 1996-1997, the United States offered Vietnamese defense ministry a range of starting points for a program of military engagement and adduced a series of simple precepts for defense relations: POW/MIA remained the national priority; all activities had to be transparent and not aimed at impacting the equities of other bilateral defense relations; the relationship was to unfold in a carefully calibrated manner intended as slow and deliberate; and the relationship was to be a "two-way street." The Vietnamese reacted in 1997 with a parallel set of starting points that emphasized sovereignty, independence, national dignity, and the importance of a cautious, modest pace for the process of normalization. The decision during the tenure of the 9th Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam to retain an extremely modest focus on military medicine, military scientific and technological cooperation, and disaster relief/humanitarian projects guided the relationship from the earliest joint activities in 1997 through at least 2000-2001.2

Officers from the defense ministry's External Relations Department (ERD) were suspicious, conservative, and not inclined to move beyond argument about the "legacy issues," such as the effects of Agent Orange and alleged U.S. Government support for anti-regime organizations. Senior defense officials found it difficult to understand U.S. intentions and presumed that military-to-military relations were just one more means by which Washington could manipulate the POW/MIA issue. While the United States referred to "defense relations," the Vietnamese spoke of "military-to-military contacts," implying a relationship that was orders of magnitude more confined and modest than a defense relationship. Eventually, as the relationship became routine and sought a consistent level of communication, the phrase military-to-military became much less of a means of drawing a distinction between the DOD term of art and the preferred ERD nomenclature.

In this period, both sides fixed their attention on fulfilling a light schedule of low-profile annual plans that began with the first post-normalization visit of the U.S. Commander of pacific Forces to Hanoi, an initial orientation visit to the United States by a group of ERD senior colonels, the opening of the Vietnamese defense attaché office in the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, and visits to Vietnam by U.S. military officers from the National War College and Air War College for area familiarization. The primary channel of communication evolved between working level representatives of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA) and the ERD. These activities became frequent set piece actions between directorate level officials representing organizations with singularly different mandates and vastly different levels of policy authority that were ultimately responsible for shaping an annual plan of activities in the bilateral defense relationship.

While the ERD was the defense ministry's eyes and ears on U.S.-Vietnamese relations, senior officers manning key positions had decidedly less maneuvering room at the negotiating table. They were less inclined to make judgments about the acceptability of recommended activities than were ISA representatives. They were more directly responsible to the defense ministry and more inclined to defer decisions until explicit instructions arrived from that quarter, whereas ISA functioned on the basis of broad instructions and had more of an ability to innovate at negotiating sessions without requesting additional guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). In fact, following the first few steps in the original November 1996 plan, including the visit to Hanoi by the commander of USPACOM and the visit to the United States by the defense ministry's senior colonels' delegation, in April 1997 the Vietnamese ERD unceremoniously postponed the remainder of planned activity for the year, including the visits by the U.S. National Defense University (NDU) and Air War College study groups. The reason given for the postponement was the upcoming National Assembly elections, which would require senior leaders to set aside other activities so as to ensure successful election to the legislature of a predetermined number of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) candidates.3

Nevertheless, a number of achievements in the relationship were chalked up from 1996 to 1999, including the visit of the Deputy off the defense relationship, the February 1997 trip to Hanoi by the commander of USPACOM, and the arrival of Vietnam's first defense attaché in March 1997.

In late 1997, the legacy issues of Agent Orange and Vietnam's MIAs became central in all ISA and ERD dialogue on military relations. In October 1998, Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam visited the Pentagon, followed by Deputy Defense Minister Tran Hanh's trip to the United States in the same month. ISA-ERD planning meetings in 1999, a successful Air War College study group visit to Vietnam (including the first flight line visit to Nha Trang Pilot's School), and an April 1999 visit by U.S. military engineers that initiated the important deminimg training program for Vietnam were followed by lengthy discussions that culminated in the March 2000 visit to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by Secretary Cohen.

Circumspect Courtship

In 2000-2004, the United States took the first efforts to modestly expand the scope and pace of defense engagement. The Vietnamese clarified the more rigid aspects of their position on enhanced defense relations, dug in their heels, and resisted anything beyond the most symbolic forward movement in defense relations. For example, through the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Vietnamese claimed a longstanding aversion to anything involving U.S. special forces, but managed to overcome that reluctance when they became convinced of the attractiveness of demining-focused activities and events involving U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific.

During this "courtship" period, the Vietnamese continuously asserted their clear objections to anything that smacked of explicitly military education. DOD could often press beyond standard objections and concerns by describing and defining mountable hurdle involved the "vetting" of Vietnamese participants nominated for an activity as free of any prior involvement in acts against human rights. The U.S. side described the legislatively mandated vetting requirement as the most effective means of identifying professional military officers who would profit from participation in proposed events. Often that satisfied Vietnamese concerns and gave the defense ministry enough of a comfort level to authorize PAVN participation in USPACOM-hosted, Title 10-funded seminars, multilateral conferences, and other educational opportunities.

Throughout the tenure of three defense ministers, the Vietnamese military made clear that Hanoi would never put troops in the field with uniformed U.S. forces for the purposes of joint activities or training on Vietnamese soil. Over time, training possibilities took on new and unique shapes, including multilateral options and training in peacekeeping methods, and the U.S. Government explored those possibilities with the Vietnamese. Still, the Vietnamese were slow to show any inclination to get past their own rhetoric. The generation of Soviet-and Chinese-trained troops and engineers might have to pass from the scene or become so overwhelmingly helpless in the face of new technologies before the Vietnamese would become more receptive to working with the U.S. Military.

However, pronounced Vietnamese military reluctance to ratchet up activities that smacked of close defense cooperation did not altogether preclude the possibility of defense ministry officials recognizing the dividends that could derive from the relationship with the U.S. military, and organizing for at least gradual shifts in views that enabled new types of engagement in the early 2000s. For example, during 3 years' worth of working level discussions, the U.S. side made clear the DOD view regarding the utility and positive contribution ship visits could make to global naval diplomacy. The Vietnamese stuck to their stated disinterest in port calls, noting that this decision would have to come from the top and could not be driven by inspired discussions at planning sessions. During his March 2000 visit to Hanoi, Secretary Cohen and Defense Minister Pham Van Tra agreed that ship visits would be a positive aspect of a gradually expanding plan for military engagement. Following that visit, on the instructions of the minister, the Vietnamese defense ministry entered into a long series of technical discussions with U.S. Pacific Fleet representatives that, in late 2003, enabled the first U.S. Navy ship port call in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton's November 2003 visit to Vietnam sustained that momentum, focused on the successes of demining cooperation, and legitimized high-level discussions aimed at managing wartime legacy issues in a more effective fashion.

Nudging Things Forward

In 2002-2003, OSD Policy began to look for new ways to realize the great potential of this bilateral defense relationship, reasoning that new activities could be easily integrated into the existing plan and that the shared concerns for the well-being of Southeast Asia and a common approach to broad transnational issues in the region suggested a natural basis for strategic communication between Hanoi and Washington. Senior DOD leaders cited the clear similarities in strategic viewpoints between Hanoi and Washington as the basis for their argument that the United States should be able to build on existing relationships, recent positive precedent-setting meetings, and a generally positive predisposition in favor of the bilateral defense relationship. The trajectory of the relationship was sustained by:

  • Continued bilateral cooperation on matters such as demining, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, and environmental security.
  • Slow but steady expansion of the areas in which the two militaries conducted practical bilateral cooperation.
  • An enhanced level of visits and formal discussions including successes in the USPACOM-defense ministry planning talks (the Bilateral Defense Dialogues) and policy-level discussions that led to the first Political-Military Dialogue in October 2008.

Defense Minister Tra's November 2003 visit to the United States and the first U.S. Navy ship visit in the same month jump started a series of successes that fueled progress in developing normal military relations through 2008-2009. The relationship took on positive momentum beginning with the meeting between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in mid-2005, to Secretary Rumsfeld's visit to Hanoi in mid-2006, to the unprecedented visit to the Pentagon by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in June 2008. During 2005- 2008, the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship grew steadily, expanding in scope in measured but noticeable ways:

  • In 2005, Hanoi signed the end-user agreement that was the prerequisite for starting International Military Education Training (IMET) and foreign military sales.
  • In 2006, International Traffic in Arms Regulations restrictions were modified to enable some constrained arms sales.
  • Five years after laying out the plan for port calls by U.S. Navy vessels, the Vietnamese side yielded slightly on the "one ship per year rule" allowing a hydrographic vessel and later a humanitarian ship to enter Vietnamese waters in 2007-2008, even though a gray hull had already taken the single allotted slot.
  • The number of high-level visits, also the subject of early Vietnamese efforts to control the pace and scope of relations by restricting the number of senior DOD visitors, became a matter of what the traffic would bear.
  • Practical bilateral cooperation in search and rescue, environmental security, and demining remained consistently high-quality engagements involving well-thought out interactions at the specialist level.

The Vietnamese began considering expanding the levels of activity to include meteorological and hydrographic studies, and capacity-building in humanitarian disaster relief.

In 2005-2007, the defense ministry began to more seriously explore strategic objectives in the relationship, such as formal interaction focused on building disaster response capabilities for the People's Army, and a more effective means of working together on search and rescue operations and exercises. In that time frame, the Vietnamese, though still guarded in their statements, were inclined to support informal discussions about steps that could enhance the relationship, take military-to-military engagement to the next level, and infuse some real strategic content into the defense relationship. The Vietnamese entertained possibilities of peacekeeping training, simple joint naval exercises (such as a passing exercise), an acquisition and cross servicing agreement, a strategic dialogue between the defense ministry and OSD, hydrographic cooperation and joint studies of the strategic impact of meteorological shifts and sea level changes, and continuing routine operational level interaction with USPACOM planners in the form of the Bilateral Defense Dialogue aimed at planning the annual calendar for the relationship.

Though these were significant and noticeable breakthroughs in the relationship, the Vietnamese defense ministry did not commit to these steps until it had sufficient assurances that the pace and scope of developing defense relations with Washington would not throw its equities in regional relations out of balance. The ministry worked hard to make sure its commitment to enhanced military engagement with the United States was not perceived as a tilt in overall foreign policy objectives toward a one-sided reliance on a single friendship. The Vietnamese defense ministry did not signal its readiness to sign the end-user agreement, subscribe to rules governing IMET (including mandatory human rights vetting), or proceed with an annual schedule of ship visits on the basis of a strategic calculation that closer defense and security cooperation was the answer to its security concerns. Indeed, the ministry did not agree to an accelerated schedule of DOD leadership visits or entertain the possibility of expert level consultations on possible future topics for bilateral cooperation until there were assurances that these decisions would not have a strategic impact on the relationships the Vietnamese remained most concerned about: bilateral links with China, multilateral links with Southeast Asian neighbors, and organized interaction with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). That is, senior defense ministry officials decided to press forward on initiatives meant to enhance bilateral defense relations between Hanoi and Washington during 2005 and 2006 once it became clear there would be no fundamentally costly strategic consequences for proceeding. The ministry had long required some quiet signal that there would be no consequential blowback from China on anything in the U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship.

Building Relations

During 2008-2009, the bilateral defense relationship started to focus on building capabilities and developing new skill sets in specialized areas: peacekeeping, environmental security, multilateral search and rescue coordination, and regional disaster response. The Vietnamese defense and foreign ministries mastered the nuances and details of the programs and understood the funding realities and recoiled less in the face of a newly proposed U.S. initiative. The Vietnamese prepared to discuss issues surrounding the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)-including their concerns with seizure actions and the views of the United Nations (UN), as well as the compatibility of PSI with existing national law-in ways that suggested recognition of new possibilities in bilateral defense cooperation and more confidence in their regional and global role and the requirements necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

There was an increasingly important multilateral dimension to U.S.-Vietnam interaction, and a heightened interest in cooperating with the United States to meet transnational challenges. Vietnam staked out a role for itself in the region and on the global stage, and it intended to make the most of its term as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Senior Vietnamese representatives reinforced this intent by focusing on the multiplier effect that bilateral defense and security cooperation with the United States had on Vietnam's ability to play meaningful leadership roles in the region and by taking foreign policy positions that stressed the need for Washington to do better at managing its relations with ASEAN. Vietnam applauded the Obama administration's movement in the direction of acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as an important step, and argued that the U.S. Government could make a real difference by committing to a U.S.-ASEAN summit before the end of 2009. Hanoi also made the case that the United States should take a higher profile position on South China Sea issues, perhaps moving out in front of an ASEAN consensus (if one could ever be developed) by cautioning China of the potential political consequences of continuing its trajectory on this issue in the face of a united ASEAN.

Bilateral issues still abounded. Vietnam remained chagrined in 2008-2009 that Congress kept passing punitive legislation that spoke to Vietnam's human rights record, and that the administration had not been actively speaking against these legislative initiatives. Agent Orange was, in effect, Vietnam's POW/MIA issue, one that galvanized broad popular sentiment, generated activism within specific constituencies, and promised to remain a domestic issue with significant foreign policy consequences. However, such issues no longer were show-stoppers. They were integrated into a bilateral dialogue that tested possibilities, explored new avenues of cooperation, reviewed existing programs, and allowed venting on sensitive issues.

During 2006-2008, the defense ministry made a real effort to bring to the table several levels of representation beyond its External Relations Department, including the Institute for Military Strategy, a relatively new organization subordinate to the Office of the Minister of Defense. The level of ministry participation in bilateral meetings and events showed a broadening interest in the relationship and also demonstrated the increasing depth of expertise in Vietnam about the United States. The ministry was positive about the idea of a military-to-military policy-level dialogue, something that was discussed briefly at the meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Prime Minister Dung in June 2008, and had earlier been an agenda item in exploratory private discussions with senior and midlevel defense ministry officials. This suggested an interest in pushing the relationship toward bilateral discussions on regional defense issues, strategic thinking, plans and intentions regarding defense relations in the region, and defense modernization and requirements.

In the same time frame, the Vietnamese foreign ministry resumed a more active role in defense and security relations, returning to a level of involvement it had during the first working level discussions of the modalities of military-to-military normalization from 1994 to 1995. In June 2008, during the prime minister's visit to Washington, which featured a meeting with President George W. Bush and a separate visit to the Pentagon for talks with the Secretary of Defense, the Vietnamese agreed to a Political-Military Dialogue led by the State Department and foreign ministry, which took place in early October 2008. Vietnamese embassy efforts in Washington to invigorate lines of communication with DOD and its think tanks continued this trend. In 2008 and 2009, embassy officials encouraged informal discussions between visiting Vietnamese strategic thinkers and NDU, and entertained the possibility of sending Vietnamese officials to the university as participants in the International Fellows program. Foreign ministry officials and embassy senior staff embraced in principle a proposal to expand and upgrade the annual delegations of U.S. National War College students to include representatives of NDU, and conduct a dialogue with the defense ministry's National Defense Academy and the foreign ministry's Diplomatic Academy. The Vietnamese ambassador in Washington took the initiative following his 2007 arrival to revive the practice of a quarterly meeting with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, expanding that format to include both the Defense Attaché and a representative of the Political Section.

In 2008, DOD leadership focused again on how the United States could be doing more and how the department should shape efforts to heighten the tempo and spectrum of cooperation. Senior OSD Policy officials felt the need for a new organizing concept that went beyond the idea that the relationship should proceed cautiously and incrementally for the foreseeable future. The idea of regional sensitivities to increasing proximity between Hanoi and Washington struck many as an old notion that did not recognize the extent to which the region itself considered the enhanced relationship as a development that resonated positively with regional goals.

The defense ministry, perhaps at the urging of the office of the prime minister and the foreign ministry, had moved forward slightly beginning in 2005 by agreeing to look at capacity-building in narrow areas such as disaster response, humanitarian crisis coordination, and military medicine. Certainly, Hanoi did not plunge into these areas of cooperation by embracing initiatives, subscribing to assistance programs, or agreeing to launch there was an increasingly important multilateral dimension to U.S.-Vietnam interaction, and a heightened interest in cooperating with the United States to meet transnational challenges tailored initiatives. However, in 2007 and 2008, the Vietnamese defense establishment was more open to the argument that the initial constraining parameters that helped define the modest pace and scope of early defense relations could be modified. There was still no Vietnamese military support for discarding restraint and plunging into active cooperation on a strategic level, looking at possible joint training and exercising opportunities, or ratcheting up cooperation in areas such as resource management reform, military professionalization, or doctrinal modernization.

Both sides had by 2009 experienced slightly more than 12 formal years of military-to-military engagement. The United States had placed a succession of four Defense Attachés in Hanoi since December 1995. Vietnam had assigned four similarly talented senior colonels to Washington since March 1997. Vietnamese officers involved during the earliest days of the defense relationship had been promoted in rank and elevated in assignments. A former Vietnamese defense attaché in Washington had become the deputy director of the Military Strategy Institute in 2006. Junior PAVN officers who served as staff functionaries supporting ERD negotiations with ISA from 1997 to 2001 had been elevated to key jobs in the leadership suite of the ERD. Similarly, former U.S. Defense Attachés had returned to Washington and taken teaching positions in critical professional military education institutions and assumed leadership roles with the Joint Staff and with the Defense Language Institute. The Vietnamese defense ministry leadership responsible for the startup discussions regarding military relations in 1996 had retired, a pattern replicated among U.S. counterparts responsible for policy issues in the earliest years of the defense relationship, suggesting that the policy of improving defense relations was now generational.

There were new institutional actors on both sides, including Vietnam's Military Strategy Institute, and the subordinate Institute for Foreign Defense Relations, as well as the new Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs on the U.S. side of the equation, established in late 2007 to replace the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

Both sides had become more knowledgeable about one another, better equipped to react to opportunities and determine the most effective use of resources to improve practical interaction, and more inclined to frank and straightforward dialogue. This was a relationship that was growing, flourishing, and showing promise beyond the expectations that greeted the idea of military-to-military normalization in 1995-1996. However, a range of hard problems revolving around attitudes and issues that are artifacts of the war, Vietnam's commitment to the principles of nonalignment, a hypersensitivity to matters of sovereignty, hesitancy about embracing certain aspects of practical bilateral defense cooperation such as training and exercises, and Hanoi's concerns regarding the consequences of increasing proximity to Washington suggest that this relationship will continue to progress in measured ways.

Where to Go from Here?

How will the United States move the relationship from where it is today? How can we press beyond the current parameters? And how can we best nudge the Vietnamese toward a much more direct military cooperation?

Three variables need to be factored into planning next steps in the defense relationship with Vietnam:

  • High-level buy-in to a concept of enhanced defense relationships does not translate readily into anything more than a commitment to make a commitment. Though the prime minister endorsed the idea of more profound dialogue, heightened interaction, and accelerated practical bilateral cooperation, the act of translating that idea into an instruction can be agonizingly long and incredibly frustrating.
  • All appreciable advances in the relationship have been cultured first in an "informational exchange" period, where the United States and Vietnam have agreed to a formal interim step involving a substantive exchange of data as a means of building confidence, raising levels of knowledge, and buying time for determining intentions, exploring ulterior motives, and maneuvering to achieve perceived advantages en route to a final commitment to a program, an event, or a process.
  • The existing mechanisms for managing the defense relationship will govern the possibilities for the near term, and those mechanisms will seek to relate proposals to existing forms of interaction, familiar events and activities, and already functioning routines and practices.

This means the Vietnamese will regard with suspicion proposals for events that do not conform to expectations. The defense ministry will look at new initiatives as exceeding existing agreements. The office of the prime minister will be more than happy to allow the defense ministry to manage the relationship, confident that it will not get ahead of the consensus regarding what is politically possible in defense relations.

It is therefore best to think in terms of small and incremental advances, rely on already existing forms and routines, defer to existing channels of communication, and exercise patience.

The Vietnamese defense ministry may seem as though it is ready for something new, but it will not so readily embrace significant departures from existing forms and commitments. The prime minister clothed his points to Secretary Gates during the June 2008 meeting in the most conservative vocabulary possible, and the defense ministry is likely to react to the position that defense relations can and should be expanded in slow, measured, and exceedingly cautious ways. This is a system that does not quickly embrace change, even when it senses opportunities and commits to altered trajectories and new policy goals. The way to work within these confines: start by identifying familiar forms of interaction as the means of introducing new ideas; utilize existing mechanisms of communication as the way to socialize new initiatives; and identify the least dramatic way of accomplishing a new activity. Some basic guidelines for conducting the U.S. Vietnam defense relationship include:

  • Frame advances in the vocabulary of the existing relationship
  • Utilize informational exchanges as the means to introduce new ideas
  • Stick to formulas that enshrine the reciprocal dimension to the relationship
  • Treat Vietnam as a strategic equal
  • Deliver the humanitarian assistance necessary to grease the cogs
  • Confront the domestic legal and political realities of the Agent Orange issue
  • Minimize rhetoric that proclaims every success as a net loss for China
  • Synchronize new bilateral developments with ASEAN-approved activities
  • Recognize Vietnam's concern with being left behind as the region thrives
  • Build slowly and carefully on existing bilateral activities
  • Give Vietnam the level of attention it craves
  • Build on Vietnam's regional interests and global concerns.

In program-focused terms, the United States should press the Vietnamese toward using IMET for much more strictly mainstream military education opportunities. The U.S. Government should move employment of IMET resources from the agreed upon areas of use-military medicine, military scientific and technological cooperation, and humanitarian cooperation-to areas of real military training, perhaps beginning with some modest Mobile Training Teams focused on airport safety, armored personnel carrier (APC) maintenance, and other areas that have been at the core of "theoretical" discussions with the Vietnamese of what might be possible in the future. Enrolling Vietnamese military officers in more expanded IMET courses focused on professionalism and civil-military relations would be an important means of developing a comfort level with the notion of selling hardware and systems to Vietnam.

The United States should continue to urge the Vietnamese to sign on to the Proliferation Security Initiative, whose principals represent common ground. Hanoi continues to fret about the international law involved, level of commitment required, and consequences for its nonaligned status. Between the desire within DOD to define an inventive means of bringing the uncommitted and undecided along and Vietnam's own continuing inquisitiveness about this program, Washington should be able to find a way to move things along in a manner that satisfies Vietnam's concerns and serves U.S. interest by getting Hanoi married to regional counter proliferation activities.

The United States should see Vietnam's decision to sign a letter of request (LOR) for price and availability information regarding long-discussed helicopter parts as a positive step, even if that process has stalled as Vietnam's military takes another look at the requirement. Vietnam's agreement to take the first step in that process with an eye to acquiring spare parts and possible repairs or restorations for the UH-1s that remain in country, followed by a similar LOR involving APC parts, opens up a new set of opportunities for advancing practical military relations. The foreign military sales process is lengthy and legally complex, but in the end it is a positive step toward cooperation on ways that can benefit the PAVN, develop existing capabilities, enhance professionalism, and help identify common ground on which the United States and Vietnam can cooperate.

The United States should urge Vietnam to agree to more than one U.S. Navy gray hull ship visit a year and should consider a decision to diversify these activities. DOD encourages refueling stops and passing exercise-type activities that would enhance Vietnam's maritime safety procedures, and in early 2009, DOD accomplished a fly out to the USS Stennis, overcoming an early and overwhelming reluctance on the part of Vietnamese defense policy leaders to engage with the United States in a fashion that would put Vietnamese in proximity with American war making capabilities, advanced technology, aircraft carriers, and other significant modern platforms. These are activities that should be encouraged because they would nudge Vietnam toward opportunities to derive training value from activities with the U.S. military.

Vietnam should sign an acquisition cross-servicing agreement, a bilateral agreement that facilitates the exchange of logistics support, supplies, and services during ship visits, exercises, training, or emergency situations. Hanoi's concern with this agreement is that it could involve providing services for U.S. military assets deploying in ways that are not supported by the Vietnamese government. The United States should focus on the bilateral advantages of being able to pay in kind in a fashion that facilitates ship visits to Vietnam, or enabling the use of local resources in the context of bilateral training and exercise events, as a means of selling the practical, operational advantages of an acquisition cross-servicing arrangement.

The United States has worked with Vietnam to engender an interest in enhancing its peacekeeping and search and rescue capabilities, so that Vietnam is prepared to utilize existing U.S. programs to develop those niche abilities. Hanoi's willingness to assume increased obligations in the region and on the global stage as a leader and catalyst for transnational cooperation has made it slightly more comfortable with the notion of engaging in multilateral activities, informational exchanges, and regional educational opportunities in which the United States is involved, and even bankrolling such exercises. Vietnam has committed to participate in the U.S. Government's Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative, though the highest levels continue to add caveats suggesting some residual reluctance to embrace this opportunity entirely. The United States needs to identify the additional effort necessary to achieve unconditional Vietnamese comfort with the initiative in a way that will make cooperation on other regional challenges-maritime security, for example-that much easier to broach when the time comes.

The key to moving ahead on defense cooperation, the critical step necessary to take the relationship to the next level, is a willingness to press beyond existing parameters and policies and to chip away at longstanding ceilings and limits on activities. There are several mutually accepted limits that have been a part of the relationship since 1997, including the ceiling on the number of high-level visits per year, annual ship visits, and monthly activities in the defense relationship. The United States understands that there are operational limits to Vietnam's ability to take advantage of opportunities. However, these ought not to be limiting factors, especially when opportunities that can contribute in a positive way to improving cooperation and understanding are at stake. These limits no longer serve the relationship. The result is the inability to take advantage of even the most tantalizing and logical of chances for enhanced bilateral cooperation on security and defense issues of mutual interest.

It is important to help the Vietnamese get accustomed to the notion that as the bilateral defense relationship begins to focus on building capabilities and developing new skill sets in specialized areas-peacekeeping, environmental security, search and rescue, and regional disaster response-our two defense establishments eventually will have to turn attention to defense reform, professional military education, standards of conduct, and civil-military relations. These issues will have to become as much of a part of the bilateral dialogue as the more management-focused efforts to keep the calendar of events in the defense relationship organized and compelling, not only because of the legislative requirements, end-user obligations that are explicitly a part of IMET and foreign military financing, but also because of the trajectory the bilateral dialogue should take. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship will benefit by developing from practical cooperation on programs to a much more strategic approach to developing defense establishment resources and capabilities. The DOD dialogue with the Philippines involves a mutual investment in Philippines Defense Reform. The U.S. defense relationship with Indonesia has taken on a similar dimension. And the U.S. defense relationship with Thailand also involves a commitment to defense resource management reforms. This might be down the road for Vietnam, but the United States needs to acknowledge that a real partnership will also end up having the two sides speaking to one another about growing the military relationship in a way that focuses on these responsibilities.

The idea of a "policy dialogue" between the Department of Defense and the ministry of defense, mentioned during Prime Minister Dung's mid-2008 meetings with Secretary Gates, will bring real dividends for both sides by elevating the dialogue from program management and issues of practical cooperation to enduring defense and security issues regional and global in scope, to envisioning the strategic future of U.S.-Vietnam defense and security cooperation, and to wide-ranging discussions of future trends and challenges in a transforming world.


1 A long history of humanitarian activities in Vietnam predated normalization. Since the late 1980s, civic action work by U.S. Pacific Command focused on schoolhouse construction, medical civil action programs, and flood relief, associated in the period from 1988 through 1994 with prisoner of war/missing in action (POW/MIA) activities. When Office of the Secretary of Defense Policy developed the entry level program that led to normalization of military relations in November 1996, the Pentagon sought to utilize the kind of confidence-building activities that had paved the way for increased access in the context of the POW/MIA program during 1987-1990

2 During Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman's visit to Hanoi in summer 2005, Defense Minister Pham Van Tra articulated this trilogy of interests, clearly indicating that this approach continued to define the maximum feasible parameters for bilateral defense cooperation.

3 See Edmund Malesky and Paul Schuler, "Paint-by-Numbers Democracy: The Stakes, Structure, and Results of the 2007 Vietnamese National Assembly Election," Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4, no. 1, 1-48. At the time, the External Relations Department's explanation of its abrupt departure from the agreed-upon plan of action was regarded as a cover for enduring defense ministry tentativeness about the proposed work toward defense relations with the United States.

Unlocking Russian interests on the Korean Peninsula

Major John W. Bauer

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2009 issue of Parameters.

The close relationship that once existed between Moscow and Pyongyang is a relic of the Cold War. In fact, there is reason to believe that the two neighbors now share little in common. Yet decades ago, the Soviets exercised tremendous influence over the North Korean regime, anecdotally evidenced by Kim Il-sung's fateful request to Josef Stalin asking to invade the South in 1950. Stalin, after much consternation, finally gave his approval.1 By deferring to Stalin, Kim Il-sung sought continued Soviet support, which he received for roughly 40 years until the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, however, this partnership changed significantly.

Russia's national interests have conspicuously drifted since then, favoring South Korea over the North. What has caused the shift in Moscow's attention south from Pyongyang to Seoul, and what are the strategic consequences of this development in light of South Korea's goal to one day reunify the peninsula? This striking change in Russian focus is significant because it offers opportunities to enhance the United States-Republic of Korea alliance, opportunities that should be carefully incorporated into America's strategic planning.

This is not to say that the Russians have lost interest in North Korea. Russia, which shares an often overlooked 12-mile border with North Korea, is naturally concerned about its neighbors, especially when one of them maintains the fourth-largest military in the world, claims to possess nuclear weapons, struggles with widespread famine, and is ruled by a regime vulnerable to collapse. North Korea is also the only territory separating Russia from an overland connection to South Korea, the 15th-largest economy in the world and one that has been growing at a feverish pace during the past two decades.2 It is no surprise that energy-rich Russia and energy-hungry South Korea have developed a symbiotic attraction. The former is anxious to bring to market its abundance of untapped energy resources, while the latter continues to grow its insatiable demand for bio-carbon fuels. On the other hand, Russia sees little value in the declining North Korean economy, which for the most part remains closed and continues a downward spiral. If in the long-term Russia is looking to North Korea for any economic boon, it is for access to North Korean territory to enable further trade with the South.

Regardless of what the future holds for North Korea, whether it is peaceful economic and political transformation, catastrophic regime change, or even war waged in desperation against the South, insight into Russia's perspective is critical to any strategic course charted by the United States. In order to develop this understanding, a willingness to depart from conventional thinking, namely an outlook that encourages blind skepticism and even cynicism toward Russia, is required. This article will present a characterization of Russian interests at odds with assumptions positing that in any war or regime collapse scenario, the Russians would necessarily be uncooperative with South Korea. On the contrary, the long-term convergence of Russian and South Korean economic interests creates cause for optimism and presents strategic possibilities in the event of a North Korean crisis.

Moscow's Distancing from Pyongyang

Russia's abrupt about-face in its long-standing patronage of North Korea began at the end of the Cold War. At that time, Russian diplomats were eager to demonstrate to the world that their nation had truly reformed and that Russia had wholeheartedly replaced totalitarian-Communist thinking with the western, democratic free-market ideal. In a dramatic shift in policy, Russia in 1990 diplomatically recognized South Korea and shortly thereafter ceased its sizable flow of military and technical aid to North Korea.3 Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin's Foreign Minister, even went on to accuse North Korea of serious violations of human rights and to declare that a change in its government was needed.4 Today, the basic principles behind this radical change in policy endure, although the rhetoric has been somewhat tempered by the Putin and Medvedev administrations. Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia has no interest in propping up the current North Korean regime, and it would most certainly not support the North militarily in the event of war.

Russia more recently, however, has shown that it wishes to restore some semblance of its favorable diplomatic relations with the Kim Jung- il regime, which has led to a policy that can be summarized by the simple phrase "the road to Seoul lies through Pyongyang."5

There are two aspects of this statement, one figurative and one literal, and both have important meanings. Figuratively, Moscow realizes that in order to most effectively engage the South Koreans, Russia has to appear to be in a position of influence with respect to the North. In other words, diplomatic and economic opportunities will materialize when Seoul believes it is dealing with a major regional player capable of placing constructive pressure on Kim Jung-il. The literal meaning highlights the fact that any overland linkage with the South, whether it is via road, rail, or pipeline, must cross North Korean territory. For the Russians to obtain transportation corridor would be a watershed event, effectively connecting not only Russia to South Korea, but also South Korea to Europe through Russia. The point of failure for both of these initiatives is an uncooperative North Korean regime.

Russia's recent desire to improve relations with the North has not stopped Moscow from condemning Kim Jung-il's bad behavior. When North Korea conducted ballistic missile and underground nuclear tests in 2006, Russia responded by supporting United Nations Security Council resolutions 1695 and 1718, condemning both events.6 Six months later, Vladimir Putin demonstrated even further disapproval by signing a decree prohibiting Russian government agencies and commercial ventures from exporting or transporting military hardware, equipment, materiel, or technical assistance that could be used in any of North Korea's weapons programs.7

Russian actions have shown that their desire for relations with North Korea does not eclipse their other, more compelling security interests. With its eye on broadening trade with South Korea while stifling North Korean antagonism, Moscow's interests most closely match those of Seoul rather than Pyongyang. In the opinion of Professor Alexander Vorontsov, Russia has come to consider future Korean unification as a desirable outcome provided that the merging of the two states occurs in a manner that is both prosperous and advantageous to Russia.8 Since South Korean domestic and international policy offers conditions most beneficial to Russia, this leads to a logical conclusion that should be emphasized. Russia in principle would not oppose South Korean-led reunification, a position that would have been unthinkable during the Soviet era. At the same time, according to Professor Vorontsov, Russia does seek to avoid military conflict on the Korean Peninsula for the following reasons:

  • To ensure the security of Russia's Far East regions.
  • To prevent an ecological or humanitarian disaster on Russian soil, especially if nuclear weapons are used.
  • To avoid complicating relations with Washington and Tokyo.
  • And to protect the considerable investment Russia has made in rail and pipeline infrastructure in the Far East.9

The remainder of this article will focus on the principal endeavor underlying the last of these four rationales: the Russian economic project vis-a-vis South Korea.

A Matter of Economics

The center of gravity for Russian exports falls unmistakably within the oil and natural gas sectors, which have also been the driving force behind Russia's economic growth during the past five years.10 According to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Russia in 2007 derived 64 percent of its export revenues from these two commodities alone.11 Russian oil and natural gas production has a significant effect on the aggregate world supply. Russia in 2007 had the distinction of being the world's largest exporter of natural gas and the second-largest exporter of oil.12 More recently, claims are being made that Russia has surpassed Saudi Arabia in volume of oil exports, making it the largest producer of "black gold" in the world.13 Consequently, the impact of changes in world oil prices on the Russian government is staggering. Depending on the direction, a $1 per barrel change in oil prices results in a $1.4 billion loss or gain in Russian revenues.14 Russia's principal challenge, then, in obtaining increased government revenues and economic growth is the expansion of its oil and natural gas exports.

The region offering perhaps the greatest promise for expanded Russian energy export is the Far East, with its chief limitation being a lack of distribution infrastructure. A great deal of Russia's resources are ideally located to serve Pacific Rim markets, from vast oil and natural gas fields in eastern Siberia to reserves on Sakhalin Island. By itself, Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, holds 25 percent of Russia's oil and six percent of its natural gas.15 Due to the lack of pipeline infrastructure, these resources remain largely untapped. Adding further inefficiency to Russian exports is the absence of a true ice-free port in the Russian Far East. Of the three major ports in the vicinity of Vladivostok, all experience some degree of icing during winter months.

Vladivostok's limitations have recently led Russia to show interest in the North Korean port of Najin, situated in the remote northeastern corner of the Korean Peninsula. Unlike Vladivostok, Najin is ice free.16 It lies inside a special administrative region called Rason, one of four special economic zones in North Korea. In 2007, Russian Railways chief executive officer Vladimir Yakunin and North Korean authorities signed an agreement to open the port for the first time to foreign trade, and in March of 2008, both sides agreed to start the construction of a 34-mile Russian-built rail segment connecting Najin to Russia.17

By gaining access to Najin, Russia hopes to relieve congestion at Vladivostok, increase year-round trade with Japan and South Korea, and make initial progress toward its most sought-after prize, the proposed trans-Korean railroad.

From the rail transit perspective, the prospect of a trans-Korean railroad that would connect South Korea to the Russian railway network stands as a tremendous opportunity for Russia.18 While the project has been effectively stalled by the North Koreans, the vision of a rail line connecting the Trans-Siberian Railroad (TSR) to South Korean markets and the Asian transshipment hub of Pusan has inspired Moscow to engage Pyongyang aggressively on the issue.19 For example, in 2004 when North Korean Railway Minister Pak Jong Song endorsed Putin's plan to link the TSR with the Korean rail networks, Russia responded with a 35,000-ton shipment of wheat, its first-ever food aid shipment to North Korea.20 If Russia can connect the TSR to an ice-free port and eventually to South Korea, it would not only expand the volume of its own exports, but would also create a land bridge stretching from Pusan to Europe. Russia in turn would receive transit fees from the overland shipment of goods.

Along with import and export revenues, transit fees are a significant source of income for Russia. According to Russian estimates, the establishment of a rail line connecting Najin and the TSR could yield up to $1 billion in transit fees annually.21 If Russia succeeds in making the TSR an attractive alternative to maritime shipping, the overland transit of goods from Asia to Europe could replace the circuitous Indian Ocean shipping lanes as the route of choice.22 This would be beneficial, among other reasons, because the transit phase is two to three times faster along the TSR than by sea. The sea route is further complicated by the inherent necessity to pass through pirate-infested shipping lanes.23

Russian rail infrastructure investment in the Far East, which might also eventually include an overland link to South Korea, holds great promise for Russia as the world increasingly recognizes the potential benefits associated with the transcontinental shipment of goods.

Improved rail infrastructure is not the only major endeavor currently pursued by the Russians in the Far East. A substantial investment is under way in pipeline projects, perhaps the most noteworthy being the nearly 2,000-mile-long Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean Pipeline. At a cost of $16 billion to $18 billion, Russia hopes to expand its existing pipeline network and deliver low-cost oil from East Siberia and Sakhalin Island to South Korean and Japanese markets.24 Together, pipeline projects and TSR upgrades are part of a $550-billion transportation infrastructure initiative announced by Prime Minister Putin in May of 2008, and touted as the biggest investment project in Russian history.25 To say Russia believes that infrastructure is the key to its long-term economic growth would be an understatement.

In the remote Russian Far East, a lack of rail and pipeline infrastructure alone stands in the way of fully realizing the economic opportunities presented by China, Japan, and South Korea and provides the key to Russian economic growth.

A Convergence of Interests

Recent collaboration between Russia and South Korea has demonstrated that the two countries share common interests at a variety of levels. In fact, the current bilateral course may very well lead to an unprecedented partnership. From the South Korean perspective, the partnership has two main advantages. First, Russia's pressure on North Korea to become more economically open, especially with regard to the trans-Korean railway initiative, is vitally important. Many observers believe that the more North Korea opens its doors to capitalistic enterprise, the more likely peaceful reunification will occur.

Second, South Korea foresees the expanded use of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as a cost effective means of transporting goods to and from Europe.26 A long-term arrangement to use the Russian rail network as a conduit for trade with Europe would inevitably reduce the cost of imported goods and broaden South Korean export opportunities.

In the wake of stalled discussions on the trans-Korean railroad, South Korea has recently struck a deal with Russia to build an exclusive-use South Korean port facility in the vicinity of Vladivostok.27 This interim move effectively bypasses the overland rail route that the North Koreans have refused to provide, namely the eastern branch of the trans Korean railroad linking Pusan to Vladivostok. In exchange for exclusive rights to the port, Seoul has agreed to import natural gas from Russia for 30 years beginning in 2015.28

The agreement is part of a $102-billion natural gas and chemical contract, an arrangement that would significantly reduce South Korean dependence upon natural gas from the Middle East. To minimize transit costs, Seoul intends to build a pipeline from Vladivostok through North Korean territory. If in the short-term the North Koreans reject this proposal, the South Korean plan is to transport liquefied or compressed gas from Russia via ship. Until last year, South Korea had never imported natural gas from Russia.29

In 2015, it expects to receive 20 percent of its natural gas supply from Russia. By completing the Vladivostok deal, Moscow entered into an agreement that expanded the scope of its energy exports and confirmed its intentions toward South Korea. This latest development appears to be only the tip of the iceberg, the initial step toward a relationship of economic interconnectedness between two nations that are on increasingly good terms. While it is obvious that mutual trade is beneficial for both countries, the real strategic point of convergence is their shared vision of a more economically open North Korea.

The Chinese Competition

Russia's hope to gain broader economic access to the Korean Peninsula has not gone unchallenged by China. Over the past several years, the Russian plan to transit goods through an ice-free North Korean port has been complicated by the Chinese, who like the Russians recognize the value of Najin. In December of 2006, China broke ground on an exclusive-use port facility of their own in Najin, a project valued at nearly $1 billion.30 The Russian Railway newspaper Gudok has characterized this development as the "China threat."31 It appears that China has capitalized on its diplomatic pride of place with Pyongyang to gain access to Najin first and in a way that would guarantee that the Chinese benefit from Russia's planned rail initiative. The Chinese plan to preempt the Russians has not only their own economic interests at heart, but also highlights Russo Chinese competition and the divergence of their strategic goals over the past two decades, particularly with respect to the Korean Peninsula.

Prior to the Najin deal, China's past attempts at making economic inroads with North Korea have been halfhearted at best. In contrast to China's economically progressive form of communism, North Korea has been almost entirely closed to foreign enterprise, with the exception of specially designated regions situated at its four corners: Rason (which includes Najin, in the northeast); Sinuiju (in the northwest); Kaesong Industrial Complex (in the southwest); and Kumgangsan Tourist Region (in the southeast). Rason, pressed up against the border with Russia and China, has been a special economic zone since 1993, yet it has remained largely undeveloped. The Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, which was established in 2002 in the hope of luring Chinese businesses, has been even less successful.32 Despite North Korea's past economic overtures toward China, the Chinese have for the most part been unwilling to reciprocate with large-scale investment.

China's lack of enthusiasm for North Korean economic transformation might be for good reason. Unlike Russia, China is quite satisfied with the geostrategic placement of its Stalinist neighbor.33 North Korea has long stood as a territorial buffer between China and the US-backed Republic of Korea. Despite being South Korea's number-one trading partner, China's economic interests have yet to outweigh its political concerns regarding a reunified, pro-western Korean republic situated along its border. Hence, China seems to have every reason to resist any catalyst for dramatic economic change within North Korea, on the grounds that greater economic openness would be the precursor to South Korean-led reunification.34 This Chinese view is in stark contrast to the Russian perspective, which looks forward to the day when goods will transit freely through the Korean Peninsula.

Understanding Russia's Past

While Russian and South Korean interests are finding common ground; there is risk that the opportunities this convergence creates for US foreign policy may be hampered by lingering mistrust from Russia's Soviet past. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by Moscow's seemingly unpredictable, unilaterally contrived conduct during the past decade. Seen in this light, the evidence supports those who would say that it has been impossible for the former Soviet Union to depart fully from its shadowy Cold War tendencies, for example the Russian incursion in Kosovo in June of 1999. When 200 Russian forces preemptively seized Pristina airport before NATO units could arrive, then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark reacted by describing the Russian move as "bizarre."35 Even though the tense situation subsided and Russian peace keepers eventually became part of the NATO Kosovo Force mission, the damage to Russia's reputation had already been done. Russia gave the impression it could not be trusted. Yet what was not apparent at the time was the extent to which Russia opposed the West's vision of the post-war Balkans, specifically when it came to Kosovan independence. The subject endures to this day as a point of contention between Russia and the West.36 In hindsight, Russia seemed to have been acting in its own national interests, attempting to carve out a sector under the protection of Russian peacekeepers that would overcome calls for a future Kosovan state.

A more recent example of Russia's unexpected conduct has been its incursion into Georgia. Hidden from most media reporting were points made by former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, who suggests that Georgia "poked Russia in the eye" and argues that Georgia has long been tempted to subdue the Ossetians and Abkhazians by force. In his opinion, Russia saw its intervention as similar to NATO's involvement in Kosovo.37 In contrast, the mainstream western reaction was quick to accuse Russia of an unjust war against a sovereign state. Little was mentioned of legitimate Russian interests, such as its long-standing peacekeeping mission and its desire to prevent civil war or a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Georgia. Opportunistic Georgian leadership, which may have seen its sizable contribution to the US mission in Iraq as a guarantor of American support, might even be to blame for having started the war.38 From the standpoint of US policy, perhaps the problem was not as much Russian audacity as it was American policymakers' inability to recognize Russian interests and anticipate its actions. If a habitual inability to understand Russia persists, America and its western allies are at risk of suffering from strategic miscalculation and, in the case of North Korea, potentially a missed opportunity.

Russia's interventions in Kosovo and Georgia clearly demonstrate that Russia will not hesitate to use military force if a regional crisis threatens its national interests. In light of these two examples, one might be quick to conclude that the Russians will similarly intervene in the event of a Korean crisis. Recent Russian policy, however, seems to suggest the possibility of an entirely different outcome if a Korean crisis were to occur. This is because a remarkable convergence in long-term interests between Seoul and Moscow has begun to occur, one that has led Russia to militarily isolate North Korea and to pressure Pyongyang to open its doors economically. The origin of this shift in Russian policy has been Russia's desire to create a lasting, mutually beneficial economic partnership with South Korea.

Russia's economic partnership with South Korea is causing the strategic calculus on the Korean Peninsula to change dramatically. The long-standing stalemate, once exacerbated by the Soviet Union's support to Pyongyang, is beginning to show signs of fissure as Russia now appears more like a potential ally to the South Koreans than a belligerent. Rather than presenting a direct challenge to South Korean-led reunification, Russia may now actually be in the position of supporting it. Nevertheless, Moscow's delicate diplomatic stance remains tenuous as it tries to balance the risk of alienating the North against the benefits of favoritism toward the South. Adding to the equation is the United States, whose inherent skepticism toward Russia potentially jeopardizes the tremendous opportunity Russia is presenting to America's close military ally, the Republic of Korea.

For nearly 60 years, the United States has invested vast resources to help keep the North Korean military machine at bay. If American policy is firmly committed to a reunification of the peninsula under the purview of its alliance partner and if a future North Korean crisis is in fact a real possibility, then the United States should consider this new prospect, namely Russian cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, as an asset that could help undermine the North Korean regime. The strategic value of such a partnership might even be efficacious enough to directly lead to a final termination of the decades long standoff in Korea. Yet this opportunity may be missed if not carefully nurtured now, before war or crisis occurs within North Korea.


1. Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006), 63-64.

2. Central Intelligence Agency, "Country Comparison: GDP (Purchasing Power Parity)," 2008 estimates, The World Factbook,

3. James Brooke, "North Korea's Other Axis: With Moscow," The New York Times, 24 March 2002,

4. Ibid.

5. Alexander Vorontsov, Current Russia-North Korea Relations: Challenges and Achievements (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2007),, 22.

6. Ibid., 23.

7. "Russia Makes U-turn, Joins UN Sanctions Against N. Korea," RIA Novosti, 30 May 2007,

8. Vorontsov, 5. Professor Vorontsov was an emissary at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang at the turn of the millennium.

9. Ibid., 2-3.

10. Bernard A. Gelb, Russian Oil and Gas Challenges (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 3 January 2006),, 3-5.

11. US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, "Country Analysis Briefs, Russia: Background," May 2008,

12. Ibid.

13. Andrew Osborn, "Russia Oil Production Overtakes Saudi Arabia," The New Zealand Herald, 23 August 2006, Parameters

14. Gelb, 3-5.

15. Ibid., 1.

16. Brooke, "North Korea's Other Axis: With Moscow."

17. "Russia, North Korea, South Korea: Hurdles to a Strategic Rail Project," Stratfor Global Intelligence, 20 May 2008, korea_hurdles_strategic_rail_project.

18. See Georgy Bulychev, "A Russian View on Inter Korean Summit," Nautilus Institute Policy Forum Online, 11 September 2007, Bulychev.html; and Leonid Petrov, "Presidential Elections and the Future of Russian-Korean Relations," Nautilus Institute Policy Forum Online, 25 February 2008,

19. Choe Sang-Hun, "South Korea Struggles to Open Rails," The International Herald Tribune,12 June 2006,

20. James Brooke, "Russia Wants to Supply Energy to North Korea," The New York Times, 4 July 2004,

21. Sergei Blagov, "North Korean, Russian Ties Firmly on Track," Asia Times Online, 27 August 2002,

22. The only other choice for an overland route connecting the Far East and Europe is the Silk Railway, dubbed the New Asia-Europe Land Bridge. In 1997, the costs of transit over the Silk Railway were three times higher than by sea, mainly because of the tariffs and delays imposed from transiting so many different countries and the number of transloads required due to changes in track gauge. In contrast, freight on the Trans-Siberian Railroad does not cross a border until it reaches Western Europe. See Xu Shu, "The New Asia-Europe Land Bridge–Current Situation and Future Prospects," Japan Railway and Transport Review, December 1997,

23. Boris Dynkin, "Comments on the Regional Railroad Network and Electric Grid Interconnection" (Khabarovsk, Russia: Far Eastern State Transport University, 2002),, 2.

24. "Country Analysis Briefs, Russia: Oil Exports."

25. "Russia, North Korea, South Korea: Hurdles to a Strategic Rail Project."

26. Petrov.

27. Ser Myo-ja , "Russia to Offer Exclusive Korean Port, Factory Site," Joong Ang Ilbo, 1 October 2008,

28. Shin Jung-Won, "South Korea, Russia Reach Natural-Gas Deal," The Wall Street Journal, 30 September 2008,

29. Ibid.

30. "China Breaks Ground on North Korean Port," Chosun Ilbo, 10 March 2006,

31. "Russia and China Vie for Najin Port," Chosun Ilbo, 2 February 2007,

32. Recently North Korea has once again tried to revive the failed project in Sinuiju. See Toru Makinoda, "N. Korea Plans Free Trade Zone on Island," Daily Yomiuri Online, 23 January 2009,

33. Balbina Y. Hwang, testimony at hearing on "China's Proliferation and Its Role in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis," US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 10 March 2005,

34. Ibid.

35. Brian Knowlton, "'Bizarre' Push by Russian Forces Rattles the Allies," The New York Times, 14 June 1999,

36. Oksana Antonenko, "Russia and the Deadlock over Kosovo," Survival, 49 (Autumn 2007), 95.

37. See Jack Matlock, "Ambassador Jack Matlock's Essay on Russia, Georgia, and More," 3 September 2008, Matlock is a retired career Foreign Service officer and was the US ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.

38. Ibid. On 8 August 2008, Georgia launched an attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia using conventional military forces, prompting Russian military intervention.

Fires in the Pacific’s Theater Security Cooperation Plan

COL Jack K. Pritchard

Reprinted with permission from the June 2008 issue of Fires Bulletin.

Admiral Timothy J. Keating, Commander, US Pacific Command (USPACOM), expressed his vision of the fiscal years 2008 to 2011 training strategy as, "A joint and combined training and exercise program that enhances, demonstrates and certifies the readiness of USPACOM forces in challenging events combining live, virtual and constructive environments."

The Pacific theater poses unique requirements. Five of the seven security treaties to which the US is a party- Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand-reside within USPACOM's area of responsibility (AOR). Ensuring the ability to meet these obligations is a key focus of the training strategy and USPACOM's Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) Plan.

The USPACOM AOR spans half the world's surface, 13 time zones, and includes five of the world's six largest armies. And, unlike Europe with its modern, technologically savvy armies linked by extensive alliances, the Asia-Pacific region is characterized by under-developed nations, a vast maritime environment and a culture of nonalignment. Additionally, throughout the Pacific, post colonial and socio economic internal frictions, as well as unresolved territorial claims and mistrust between countries, threaten stability.

The recent demands of providing forces to other geographic combatant commands has strained USPACOM's ability to meet unit training requirements and to develop effective habitual relationships with the armed forces of other nations of the Asia-Pacific Region. These challenges, compounded by population growth and increasing environmental concerns, have limited available lands and training facilities for the conduct of realistic military training.

Despite these challenges, numerous opportunities exist within the USPACOM AOR. The ongoing realignments, movements and force reductions of US-PACOM forces throughout the AOR will force new partnerships and operational relationships with the armed forces of the Asia-Pacific region.

Technological advances in simulations allow unprecedented interactive training between forces without necessitating physical collocation. Because of the threats of transnational terrorism, new requirements, missions and technologies are emerging, creating the need for partnerships with nations such as India, China and Indonesia.

The USPACOM commander established priorities for training programs within the Asia-Pacific region to establish and maintain credible joint and multinational forces trained to assure partners, dissuade competitors, deter aggressors and be capable of agile, decisive response to crises throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

TSC Plan

The USPACOM TSC Plan is an active engagement strategy with missions ranging from train-and-equip programs for building partner nation capacity to regional security initiatives and humanitarian assistance actions. The participation of fires and fire support elements in this plan long has been an integral part of the overall regional training strategy. Fires participation in USPACOM TSC Plan exercises ensures our long-term security goals within the AOR. Participation can range from Artillery and fires subject matter expert (SME) exchanges to command post exercises (CPXs) and staff exercises (STAFFEXs) for corps-level combined staffs. Recent exercises focusing on multinational operations clearly have demonstrated the need to continue to develop our partnerships with regional nations and improve our fire support interoperability throughout the Pacific.


Balikatan is a USPACOM TSC exercise conducted annually in the Republic of the Philippines. Balikatan consists of civil-military operations, a field training exercise (FTX) and a STAFFEX/CPX. The exercise fosters interoperability and enhances the armed forces of the Philippines. The STAFFEX focus is to improve crisis-action planning and normally involves a crisis-response scenario. The FTX is designed to improve interoperability and training on joint activities and operations.

Typically, a US Army, Pacific (USARPAC) or Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC) Artillery unit provides a firing battery to conduct interoperability training and SME exchanges with the Philippine Army during the FTX portion of this exercise.

Cobra Gold

Cobra Gold is an annual multinational TSC plan exercise conducted in the Kingdom of Thailand. Participating nations include the US, Thailand and a number of nations operating in a coalition task force. Cobra Gold reinforces USPACOM commitments in the Southeast Asia region by supporting regional War on Terrorism (WOT) operations and activities, focusing the exercise scenario on the most likely contingency operations in the Southeast Asia region.

Cobra Gold consists of three events: a CPX, humanitarian projects and a FTX. The corps-level CPX facilitates improved US joint and multinational forces interoperability and the ability to plan and execute complex multinational operations. Fires elements of the participating staffs perform typical contingency planning and execution along with their regional partners. Humanitarian civic assistance project sites are conducted at locations that directly support WOT and TSC Plan objectives. The battalion-level FTX improves multinational combined-arms interoperability and operational tactical readiness and military-to-military exchanges. Artillery and mortar live-fire trainings and exchanges with the Thai Army advance US joint interoperability and tactical operational readiness.

Key Resolve/Foal Eagle

Key Resolve (formerly RSOI or reception, staging, onward movement and integration) is a US and Republic of Korea operations plan (OPLAN)-oriented warfighting CPX conducted annually in the Republic of Korea. Key Resolve focuses on USPACOM and Combined Forces Command OPLANs that support the defense of the Republic of Korea. Foal Eagle is a series of joint and combined FTXs held concurrently with Key Resolve. These two exercises demonstrate US resolve to support the Republic of Korea against external aggression while improving Republic of Korea and US combat readiness and joint and combined interoperability. Past CPXs have involved the fires staffs heavily in the joint and combined planning and execution of OPLAN functions. The FTX has included Artillery SME exchanges and live fires with Republic of Korea forces.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian

Ulchi Freedom Guardian (formerly UFL or Ulchi Focus Lens) is a US and Republic of Korea OPLAN-oriented, corps-level warfighting CPX held annually in the Republic of Korea. Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a key component of the US Forces, Korea (USFK), annual training program with the Republic of Korea. Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a combination of two events: a Republic of Korea national mobilization exercise involving several hundred thousand Republic of Korea citizens practicing wartime activation and traveling to mobilization sites; and a Combined Forces Command warfighting CPX. The commander, USFK, uses this exercise to conduct training initiatives to transform the command and demonstrate enhanced warfighting capabilities. Major combined participants include the Republic of Korea and the United Nations Command Military Armistice Committee (UNCMAC).Typically, corps fire support elements provide joint and combined interoperability with their Republic of Korea counterparts.

Yama Sakura

Yama Sakura is a bilateral US and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force exercise focusing on full-spectrum operations. It is a computer simulated CPX involving both conventional and unconventional forces and is designed to improve US and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force readiness and interoperability. Key focus areas for fires elements in previous years have included joint targeting, lethal and nonlethal effects synchronization and consequence management tasks.

Talisman Saber

Talisman Saber is a biennial US and Australia exercise that includes a combined CPX and FTX with force-on-force and live-fire training modules. The exercises is the primary Australia and US bilateral training evolution, exercising the commands as a combined task force in short-warning, power-projection and forcible-entry scenario. The exercise is designed to improve US and Australia combat readiness and interoperability, maximizing joint and combined training opportunities. In the process, Talisman Saber demonstrates US resolve to support a key ally in the region and advances the USPACOM TSC plan.

The Talisman Saber focus is high-end combat operations, transitioning into peacekeeping or other post-conflict operations. AUSARPA CorMARFORPAC Artillery unit provides a firing unit to conduct interoperability training and SME exchanges with the Australian Army during the FTX portion of this exercise.

Terminal Fury

Terminal Fury is an annual CPX designed to support USPACOM continuum of events to prepare USPACOM staff and Joint Task Force-519 for a major theater contingency. Terminal Fury provides venues for biennial Joint Task Force-519 certification and exercises warfighting decision-making and staff processes to achieve training objectives. Joint targeting and joint effects workgroups, centers, cells and boards are major exercise focuses, as Terminal Fury challenges participating commanders with competing demands of setting the conditions for success should deterrence fail.

These exercises are just a few of USPACOM's exercises supporting the TSC plan strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Future opportunities to expand the fires and fire support participation are emerging as mission sets evolve and new partnerships emerge. Future exercises will focus on conducting major contingency operations; however, trends in identifying and defeating non-state, transnational threats are achieving increased attention. The USPACOMTSC Plan exercises will remain the most significant portion of the region's engagement strategy.


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