Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vietnam, U.S. Will Expand Military Links, Hold Talks Next Year

By Viola Gienger Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Vietnam agreed to expand their defense links during only the second visit to Washington by a Vietnamese defense minister in more than 30 years, the Pentagon said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General Phung Quang Thanh agreed during a one-hour working lunch yesterday that defense officials will meet next year “to enhance military to military engagement,” said Air Force Major Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, in an e-mailed statement. The two countries have taken steps on defense cooperation since normalizing relations in 1995, including visits by U.S. Navy ships to Vietnamese ports, as they eye the rising influence of China in the region. They established ties 20 years after the Vietnam War ended. The U.S. and Vietnam will move slowly toward further defense cooperation in part because of their history and also to avoid antagonizing China, said Ernest Bower, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You don’t want to provoke the Chinese,” said Bower, a former president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which seeks to advance trade links with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a group that includes Vietnam. The defense chiefs said joint work in demining, military medicine and operations related to missing soldiers was “positive,” according to the Pentagon statement. “They further agreed to look at ways to expand cooperation in peacekeeping, search and rescue and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Schumann said. “There are steps in this process” of re-establishing military ties, said Bower, who was briefed by both sides in advance of Thanh’s visit. U.S. Vessels With the ship visits under way, the countries are discussing locations for facilities in Vietnam that could be used to supply and maintain U.S. vessels, Bower said. “You sort of move up the spectrum of engagement on military-to-military cooperation that eventually leads to technology sales,” he said. The defense minister also met with other officials in the U.S. government and in Congress, including Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and Vietnam veteran who serves on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. Vietnam and the U.S. agreed to exchange such visits every three years after Defense Secretary William Cohen made a trip to the capital, Hanoi, in 2000. The first postwar visit to the U.S. by a Vietnamese defense minister occurred in 2003, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Hanoi in 2006. Nuclear Programs Steinberg was in Hanoi in September on a swing through the region and his discussions with officials in Vietnam touched on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs. Vietnam holds one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. The Vietnam War also has shadowed American relations with Southeast Asia more broadly, Bower said. Vietnam’s chairmanship of Asean next year might step up U.S. involvement in the region, a process already begun this year with President Barack Obama participating in the first U.S.-Asean summit last month in Singapore. “There really was a Vietnam hangover after the war,” Bower said. “The United States really didn’t have the appetite to engage in Southeast Asia.” Southeast Asia Webb, who speaks Vietnamese and is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, called the ties with Vietnam “very important.” “It is vitally important that the United States engage with Southeast Asia at all levels,” Webb said in an e-mailed statement after his 35-minute meeting with Thanh. Vietnam, which fought its most recent war with China in 1979, is interested in solidifying ties with the U.S. for security, Bower said. China told some international oil and gas companies to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee in July, according to testimony posted on the panel’s Web site. The U.S. is “concerned about tension between China and Vietnam, as both countries seek to tap potential oil and gas deposits that lie beneath the South China Sea,” Marciel said. For that reason and others, the U.S. shares an interest in “a strong Southeast Asia that could balance China,” Bower said. “Ironically, it’s the country that kind of pushed us away that may be a key part of bringing us back,” Bower said.

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