HANOI (Reuters) – The visit of a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War is a powerful symbol of the growing strategic ties between the former foes.
But the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson today also illustrates Hanoi’s complex and evolving relationship with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.
For months now, Vietnamese envoys have been working to ease the concerns of their giant Chinese neighbour over the visit and the prospect of broader security cooperation between Hanoi and Washington, according to diplomats and others familiar with discussions.
Vietnamese diplomats and military officers have repeatedly stressed the country’s independent foreign policy and its desire for broader foreign relations, hoping to maintain stable ties with China while standing up to it over the South China Sea.
The Vinson will mark the biggest US military presence in the country since 1975 when it berths in Danang for a five-day stay.
The port city on Vietnam’s central coast is close to its Blue Whale gas field now being developed by US oil major Exxon Mobil, as well as the increasingly fortified Paracel islands, which China occupies and Vietnam also claims.
China’s rapid construction and build-up of the seven features it holds in the disputed Spratly group further south has alarmed Vietnam and other regional governments.
As it seeks to enforce its claims to much of the South China Sea, China’s navy and coastguard now routinely patrol vast swathes of the area through which some US$3 trillion in trade passes annually.
US carriers frequently ply the South China Sea as part of a rising pattern of naval deployments, and are now routinely shadowed by Chinese naval vessels, regional naval officers say.
The Vinson arrives amid repeated signals from the administration of US President Donald Trump that it is keen to further develop security ties with Vietnam as part of a range of political and military relationships to check the rise of China.