US to send aircraft carrier to Vietnam as ties between old foes deepen in response to rising threat of China

Decades after the US war in Vietnam, relations are increasingly anchored by shared concerns over China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 9:31pm

In a post-war first, the United States will send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam, Hanoi’s defence ministry said on Thursday, a major demonstration of deepening military ties between the former enemies more than four decades after the Vietnam war.

The announcement was made during a two-day visit to Hanoi by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis that had been expected to focus on shared concerns about China.

The proposed visit is scheduled for March at the central port of Da Nang, Vietnam’s defence ministry said in a statement. Such a visit by a US aircraft carrier could bring the most US forces to Vietnam since the conflict ended in 1975.

Freedom of navigation and access in the South China Sea will be critical to [Vietnam] economically
U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis

The arrival of a US aircraft carrier in Vietnam will be welcomed by an emerging network of countries that are nervously monitoring China’s military rise, particularly its assertive stance and island-building activities in the South China Sea. The busy waterway is a vital global trade route linking Northeast Asia with the Middle East and Europe.

In particular, the militaries of US, Japan, India and Australia are working more closely together as a “quad” of liberal democracies across what they now term the “Indo-Pacific” – moves driven by mistrust of China.

US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris last week described China as a “disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific” after meetings with Japanese and Indian military leaders in New Delhi.

India, Japan and Australia have all boosted military relations with Vietnam in recent years, with New Delhi providing advanced training for its emerging submarine forces and jet fighter pilots.

Thursday’s confirmation of the US aircraft carrier visit to Da Nang caps months of back room military diplomacy between Hanoi and the Pentagon, diplomats said.

The prospect surfaced when US President Donald Trump met Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc at the White House last May, and talks continued when Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met Mattis in Washington in August.

Vietnam’s Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh became the country’s highest-ranking official to tour a US carrier when he led 11 Vietnamese officials to watch flight operations aboard the USS Carl Vinson off southern California last October, the US Navy said at the time.

Although no US aircraft carrier has been to Vietnam since the end of the war, other, smaller US warships have made high-level visits as ties improved in recent years.

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That includes a 2016 visit by submarine tender USS Frank Cable and guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain to Cam Ranh Bay, which was a crucial logistics complex during the Vietnam war.

Decades after the US war in Vietnam, ties between the United States and the communist-ruled state are increasingly seen through shared concern over China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, through which more than US$3 trillion in cargo passes every year.

Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims and has been buying US military hardware, such as an armed, Hamilton-class coastguard cutter.

The ship, one US official said, was larger than anything Vietnam had in its navy.

“[Vietnam] does have one of the region’s fastest growing economies and so freedom of navigation and access in the South China Sea will be critical to them economically and of course in their security efforts,” Mattis said before arrival on Wednesday.

US ties with Vietnam have developed significantly in the decades since they normalised ties in 1995. Still, there were vivid reminders of the history of conflict during Mattis’ visit.

That included a stop by Mattis on Tuesday to a US Defence Department office in Hanoi that seeks to recover the remains of US troops killed in the conflict. About 1,293 US military personnel are still unaccounted for, a US official said.