“The U.S. and Vietnam have a convergence of strategic interests, among which is to maintain a balance in Southeast Asia,” Raymond Burghardt, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2001 to 2004, and now director of East-West seminars at the East- West Center in Honolulu, said in a telephone interview.

U.S. interests in its relationship with Vietnam include “shared concern over the rising strength of China,” the Congressional Research Service said, in a report dated July 29. Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marcieltold Congress on July 15 that China warned oil companies not to explore in offshore areas that Vietnam considers its territory.

China and Vietnam have a history of conflict dating back thousands of years, with the latest war taking place in 1979. The two countries have jousted recently over Chinese warnings on oil companies drilling in areas that Vietnam claims.

The U.S. last month joined a friendship pact with Southeast Asia and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists in Thailand that the U.S. “is back” in the region. China acceded to the accord six years earlier.

“The Vietnamese are never going to want to be in-your-face to the Chinese about it, but in reality they do seek the cooperation of other countries, both their Southeast Asian neighbors as well as big countries like the U.S. and to some extent Japan and India as well, to make sure there’s a sufficient balance of power that ensures that the Chinese can’t do whatever they want,” Burghardt said.

Countering China

The U.S. and Vietnam have overlapping strategic interests, Mark Manyin, a Washington-based specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service, write in the report, entitled “U.S.-Vietnam Relations in 2009: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy.”

Vietnam wants to “repair and deepen its relationship with China, while simultaneously buttressing this by improving relations with the U.S. as a counterweight to Chinese ambition,” he wrote. American interests include “countering China’s increasing regional influence,” Manyin said.

Oil Exploration

China has told international oil companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. that they will be excluded from the Chinese market should they fulfill contracts to participate in Vietnamese exploration projects in or near disputed waters in the South China Sea, Manyin wrote.

“Starting in the summer of 2007, China told a number of U.S. and foreign oil and gas firms to stop exploration work with Vietnamese partners in the South China Sea or face unspecified consequences in their business dealings with China,” Marciel told the U.S. Congress.

In 2007, BP Plc abandoned planned exploration in an area known as Block 5-2 between the Spratlys and an existing BP- operated gas project in Vietnamese waters, because of competing ownership claims between China and Vietnam, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Disagreements over the Spratlys and nearby areas had seemed to calm down and now they’ve heated up again,” said Burghardt. “Part of the reason is that China is trying to expand its influence.”

The Spratly and Paracel islands are claimed in whole or part by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

By Jason Folkmanis - Bloomberg - August 28, 2009