Military ties warm between US, Vietnam

China's rise and deepening trade links have brought the once bitter enemies closer together.

As the US casts around for allies in Asia's often turbulent waters, few countries would appear a more unlikely fit than Vietnam.

Diplomatic ties between the two countries were only restored in 1995. The relationship is still dogged by the legacy of the "American War," as it's known here. US teams continue to hunt for the remains of missing servicemen, while Vietnam struggles to clear the estimated 350,000 tons of unexploded ordnance dropped by US forces.

But as trade soars between the two former foes - the US is Vietnam's number-one export market - military ties are also warming up. Vietnam has agreed to send Army officers on a US training program, and has hosted US warships at its ports. Last year, after Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made a state visit to Washington, the two sides agreed to share intelligence on terrorism, drugs, and other transnational threats.

Vietnam is also considering joining UN peacekeeping operations as a prelude to seeking a non-permanent seat on the security council. Hanoi last year sent a joint military-civilian delegation to Haiti to observe the UN mission there, according to a senior Western diplomat, and has agreed to commit to international peacekeeping "when circumstances allow."

At the same time, Vietnam isn't taking its eyes off China, its giant neighbor and historical foe. The two sides fought a border war in 1979 and only repaired relations in the 1990s after Vietnam lost its Soviet backers. This need to placate Beijing, and avoid being part of any nascent US strategy to check Chinese military expansion, is likely to keep security ties on a slow burner for now, say Western analysts and diplomats.

"For Vietnam to step forward [on security cooperation], they have to step forward in two directions. They don't want to be roped into a US containment policy towards China.... They want the US to remain engaged [in Asia], but they don't want to get too close," says Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam-watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Vietnam's balancing act is echoed by other Southeast Asian countries that want to share in the benefits of China's economic rise without losing sight of the disquiet it provokes among US policymakers who are suspicious of Beijing's military buildup.

Pentagon sees China as potential rival

On Friday, the Pentagon released a strategic blueprint indicating that China was a major focus for US military planners. "Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States," the 92-page Quadrennial Defense Review stated.

Military diplomacy has become a hallmark of the Bush administration in Asia. Last year, President Bush overruled Congress to restore full military ties with Indonesia, and has courted India with civilian-nuclear technology and increased joint military training.

US officials say that forging closer security ties with China's neighbors, including Vietnam, isn't cold war-style containment. Indeed, some analysts are skeptical that such a policy could be effective. "This isn't a zero-sum game. Our activities in Southeast Asia are aimed at improving relationships with each country, not competing with China," says a US military official in the region.

Hoang Anh Tuan, Deputy Director-General at the Institute for International Relations, a government think-tank, says Vietnam pays close attention to relations with both China and the US, and is cognizant of the risks of superpower rivalry in Asia. "What we want to see, and what this region wants to see, is manageable relations between China and the US. We don't want to see confrontation," he says.

Trade ties expected to outpace military ties

Despite deep cuts in its ranks, Vietnam still has the largest army in Southeast Asia (484,000 in 2003). But its aging weaponry and caps on military spending have blunted its prowess. "It's a large army but poorly equipped, and large armies don't matter much in this day and age. It's just a bigger target," says Ian Storey, assistant professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

(Vietnamese defense officials declined to be interviewed for this story.)

US officials trying to build bridges with Vietnam say they recognize that military relations are likely to lag behind economic cooperation, given the historic baggage. Even the concept of flexible bases now in vogue with Pentagon planners - access to foreign naval and air facilities - appears a step too far for Vietnam. Talk of a US Navy return to Cam Ranh Bay, a naval base that until 2002 was leased to Russia, has yet to materialize.

"We need to understand the history and culture of Vietnam," says the US military official. "They approach every issue with very deliberate planning and caution."

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