Hanoi plays up Beijing ties ahead of Panetta visit
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A senior Vietnamese military official yesterday sought to head off Chinese anger over US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's visit today to the strategic southern port of Cam Ranh Bay, where US navy resupply ships are repaired.
Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh (pictured) said stronger Sino-Vietnamese military relations had reduced the risk of confrontation. Vinh told the Sunday Morning Post Hanoi and Beijing recognised that increased military-to-military links had 'contributed to the overall relationship'. 'Both countries are aware that the increase in defence-to-defence relations ... can prevent ... confrontation and conflict,' he said.
'We attach great importance to the exchange of delegations, especially of border guards and the navy. It is a specific step to realise what has been agreed by the countries and militaries.'
While Vinh stressed the 'untouchable' importance of Vietnam's territorial integrity, he repeatedly appeared to strike a conciliatory tone towards China, in contrast to the tensions of recent years.
'To have peace, stability and security in the region, it is very important for us to have good relations with China so that we can enjoy mutual benefit,' he said, while stressing the need for transparency.
Two years ago as he led a successful drive to push South China Sea disputes onto the international agenda, Vinh told the Post that Vietnam had 'all capabilities' to defend its sovereignty.
Yesterday he said Sino-Vietnamese tensions over the disputed area had dropped, though there was still friction each year over the capture of fishermen and Vietnam remained concerned about China's unilateral fishing ban.
Vietnam and China claim the Paracels and Spratlys archipelagoes in their entirety, while China's controversial nine-dash line - by which it justifies its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea - bisects Vietnam's claimed economic zone, including oilfields.
Panetta, the Pentagon chief, begins a visit to Vietnam today to explore ways of expanding the fledgling relationship between two former enemies - including the prospect of increased US naval ship visits and the lifting of a US ban on arms sales.
Vinh, who was speaking before the US confirmed Panetta would travel to Cam Ranh Bay, said Chinese officials had told him they accepted that the relationship was 'the business of Vietnam and the US'. Many regional analysts believe, however, that China is watching the relationship closely, fearing it may represent an attempt at containment.
'Vietnam knows it must not act to contain China - that has been made very clear,' one Chinese envoy said recently.
Vinh said that he 'did not share' the idea that Vietnam - which has embarked on its own naval build-up - was attempting to create a deterrent to China's military rise.
'We have two key principles,' Vinh said. 'Our sovereignty and our territorial integrity are something untouchable ... something ultimate to us.'
He said small countries like Vietnam had to be 'very determined' to protect their sovereignty. 'Only in that way can we achieve an equal relationship.'
Looking ahead to Panetta's visit, he confirmed that the US and other navies would continue to have access for non-combat ships to commercial repair and resupply facilities around Cam Ranh Bay. This was a commercial operation separate from the closed military facilities within the bay, he said.
The Post reported yesterday that Panetta was expected to push for greater flexibility in repair missions after an initial agreement to host four civilian-manned resupply ships.
Senior US officials played down the prospect of an actual US warship visit to Cam Ranh any time soon, even though they occasionally visit other Vietnamese ports.
On possible future arms sales, Vinh said the long-standing congressional ban on the sale of lethal US weapons 'made a nonsense of the mutual trust' inherent in the evolving relationship. Some reports suggest that US senators have already been given a 'wish list' of arms by Vietnam.
However, Vinh said Vietnam did not need US weaponry at this point. Hanoi has in recent years broadened its sources of arms from traditional patrons such as Russia.
He said Hanoi 'had nothing to hide' from China about its relations with Washington.
China provided weapons and sanctuary to Vietnamese communist revolutionaries from the earliest days of their long but successful wars against French colonialists and then American forces.
But souring relations between Beijing and Hanoi degenerated into violence in early 1979, when then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered People's Liberation Army troops to cross Vietnam's border to 'teach Hanoi a lesson' for its invasion of Cambodia, which drove the China-backed Khmer Rouge from power.
Ties were restored in 1991.