Panetta crosses symbolic threshold in Vietnam visit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am

As US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday crossed the symbolic threshold of visiting Vietnam's strategic Cam Ranh Bay, attention was already shifting to just how deep their historic military ties may become.

While, officially at least, Panetta's first visit to Vietnam is to boost relatively low-level co-operation such as medical exchanges and search and rescue agreed last year, the medium-term prospects are more intriguing, regional diplomats believe.

A range of US and Vietnamese officials confirm that weapons sales, routine warship servicing and a formal strategic partnership fill the longer term horizon - even if the former enemies each have their hurdles to overcome, not least their complex and suspicious relationships with China. And as their ties improve, intelligence-sharing is also expected to increase.

'This is a historic trip,' Panetta told sailors aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a US merchant marine supply ship, now being repaired in dockyards in Cam Ranh Bay. 'The fact that the ship is here and being serviced by Vietnamese contractors is a tremendous indication of how far we have come.' He is the first US official to visit the area since the end of the Vietnam war.

The question is how far they will go in future - and how fast.

'Everyone is watching this relationship now - it has real potential, but there are sticking points,' said one veteran Hanoi-based military attache. 'Vietnam might want to get closer to the US in the face of China and the South China Sea dispute, but that doesn't mean it wants to be seen as an ally.'

Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phung Quang Thanh, the minister of defence, will today discuss the implementation of a memorandum signed last year, covering five routine areas - maritime security, search and rescue, the study of UN peacekeeping, aid and disaster relief, as well as military medicine.

If those exchanges continue to go smoothly, it will boost longer-term discussions over bigger-ticket items - a formal agreement to service US warships, arms sales and a broader strategic partnership.

The South China Morning Post has learnt that US officials recently told American weapons manufacturers that they wanted to see more improvements in Vietnam's human rights situation before pushing Congress to lift a long-standing ban on the sale of lethal weapons.

Some sales of non-lethal technology, such as coastal radar to boost Vietnam's South China Sea defences, would be possible even now - and Chinese envoys are monitoring developments in Hanoi closely.

Veteran US Senator John McCain confirmed at the weekend that 'productive discussions' were under way about the sale of 'certain' weapons to Vietnam.

Vietnam's deputy defence minister, Nguyen Chi Vinh, meanwhile, said the ban 'made a nonsense' of the mutual trust developing between the one-time bitter foes.

Human rights remain a sticking point, too, in talks over a strategic partnership and progress is not expected until after the US election in November.

Formal arrangements to service US warships in Vietnam have also been discussed, but no timetable for such a deal - known as an Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreement - has yet been mapped out.

Such a deal would be highly significant, and dramatically increase the number of US warships calling in to Vietnamese ports. These deals only exist between the US and its allies and close partners, including the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia - all of which now service frequent US warship visits.

When asked for an update on these talks on the eve of Panetta's trip, a senior US defence official said: 'We are not there yet.' The official added that Panetta would be concentrating instead on last year's more routine memorandum, rather than this agreement or actual warship visits to Cam Ranh Bay.

The ship he visited yesterday is one of five unarmed supply ships in service in Cam Ranh since 2010 at civilian sites beyond a Vietnamese military base now being rebuilt by Russian experts for US$200 million.

While Vietnam is keen to attract international and regional navies to the area for work at market rates, the base is likely to remain off limits.

US military planners have noted in draft reports that, for all its historic baggage, Cam Ranh Bay would fit neatly into the Pentagon's 'places, not bases' strategy and could play a key role in increased US naval deployments to East Asia.

It is also the closest base to the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha islands in Chinese, a flash-point in the South China Sea dispute.

The best natural harbour in the region, US forces built Cam Ranh Bay into one its largest naval and air-bases at the height of the Vietnam war.