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US-Vietnam ties strengthen with military exercises, to China's chagrin

This week, the USS John McCain is engaged in military exercises in the South China Sea - setting a new threshold in US-Vietnam ties.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / August 12, 2010

In this July 24 file photo, the US Navy's Aegis destroyer USS John McCain, arrives for joint US-South Korean military exercises at Donghae Harbor, South Korea. This week the USS John McCain is training Vietnamese forces in the South China Sea in search-and-rescue.

Yonhap/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

In the latest twist to Southeast Asia's blood-stained history, this week the USS John McCain is training Vietnamese forces in the South China Sea in search-and-rescue.

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“It’s extraordinary considering we were bombing Vietnam,” says Frederick Brown, who was US consul-general in Danang in the early 1970s as war raged in Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies. “It’s something the US and Vietnam want to do. It’s a military-to-military relationship.”

Adding to the historical irony, the USS John McCain, a guided missile destroyer equipped with the latest aegis counter-missile system, is named for the grandfather and the father, both US Navy admirals, of US Senator John McCain, who was imprisoned in Hanoi for more than five years after his US Navy plane was shot down in the war.

The USS McCain called at the central Vietnam port of Danang on Aug. 10 for what were called "cultural visits" two days after Vietnamese officials were flown out to the aircraft carrier George Washington, a 97,000-ton behemoth cruising the waters in defiance of China's claims to the entire South China Sea.

The blossoming relationship between the US and Vietnam is all the more remarkable considering Vietnam’s relationship with neighboring China, its strongest ally during the Vietnam War. Vietnam now appears to want to balance one great power against another while China flexes its muscles around the Chinese mainland.

“I can only imagine the Chinese are not happy about it,” says Mr. Brown. “The Chinese with sharp elbows are trying to assert their claims.”

US and Chinese views collided last month when China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had staged “virtually an attack on China” after she told diplomats at the Association of South East Asian Nations in Hanoi that sovereignty was “a leading diplomatic priority.”

Those remarks provided diplomatic background noise to Chinese air and naval exercises in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands, a cluster of islets and reefs claimed in whole or part by Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, as well as China. And Vietnam has long protested China’s hold over the Paracel Islands, seized by Chinese forces from the old South Vietnamese army in 1974 and held since then by China.

“It's all shadow boxing,” says Carl Robinson, who spent years in Vietnam as a journalist and US aid worker and is now there leading lengthy tours of the country. “But the world does need to start paying more attention to those offshore islands and what's actually going on there.”

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