Monday, October 11, 2010

In Vietnam, Gates to Discuss Maritime Claims of China

By THOM SHANKER HANOI, Vietnam — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates landed Sunday in Vietnam, where the narrative of a past war with the United States has faded as the leadership here openly seeks American support to counter an increasingly assertive China. Shared Concern About China Aligns U.S. and Vietnam (October 11, 2010) As Hanoi Marks 1,000th Birthday, Some Are Cynical (October 10, 2010) Mr. Gates has scheduled private talks with his Vietnamese counterpart during a conference of defense ministers from across the region, where a key issue will be how to manage China’s expanded claims of maritime rights in the South China Sea. China has backed those claims with threats of economic retaliation against some nations in the region. A senior Defense Department official traveling aboard Mr. Gates’s airplane to Hanoi said the defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would look for common ground on the issues of counterterrorism, peacekeeping and, with China in attendance, a response to Beijing’s push for increased sovereignty over international waters. Mr. Gates faces a delicate balancing act. He must reassure Asian partners and allies that the United States will remain engaged in the region and will work for a peaceful resolution of the competing claims over islands, undersea mineral wealth and fishing rights. But he must do so without jeopardizing his equally important efforts to restore a healthy military-to-military dialogue with China. China and the United States have already sparred over China’s claims in the South China Sea, with the United States allied with Vietnam on the issue. In March, at least one senior Chinese official raised the level of its claim, asserting to two senior White House officials visiting Beijing that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” a phrase that placed it on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, which China considers parts of its territory. In Hanoi in July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hardened Washington’s stance by saying the United States had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the area. The defense secretary’s expected arguments to China are clear: Beijing’s dash to become a global economic power requires it to honor accepted standards for sharing oceans and airspace, and harassment of ships and airplanes in international lanes off its shores will harm China’s long-term interests. China is expected to invite Mr. Gates to Beijing, a significant change in tone. China froze military relations with the United States this year when the Obama administration announced $6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. Mr. Gates arrived in Vietnam 15 years after normalization of relations between the two countries, but the streets were overflowing with revelers for another celebration, the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. China and Vietnam have a long history of bloody competition, one that was buried for the years that China backed North Vietnam in pushing back American military involvement here. Vietnam’s worries over Chinese encroachment were reflected in its recent choices for weapons purchases. Last year, Vietnam signed deals with Russia to buy six Kilo-class diesel-powered hunter-killer submarines for $1.8 billion and eight Sukhoi jet fighters for another $500 million, according to the Congressional Research Service. Both weapons are designed for protecting territorial waters and airspace, and the deals also illustrate Russia’s support of nations trying to curb China’s power. The United States, while seeking to improve diplomatic and military relations with Vietnam, has offered little in the way of arms, mostly focusing its assistance on military training and officer education. Washington has continuing human rights concerns with Vietnam, mostly about ensuring freedom of religion here.

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