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.
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Vietnam's 'very clever stuff'
Mr. Robinson says Vietnam “as usual, is playing all sides just like it did during the war” when it relied on China and the Soviet Union, often at odds with one another, for arms. “It's very clever stuff,” he says, “and too bad it's taken this long for the Americans to wake up to playing the game too.”Skip to next paragraph
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While China was roiling waters in the South China Sea two weeks ago, the carrier George Washington was leading US and South Korean forces in northeast Asia – off the east coast of the Korean peninsula – in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in March in which 46 sailors were killed. China refuses to support the finding of a South Korean investigation in which experts from five other countries agreed North Korea sunk the ship with a torpedo fired from a midget submarine.
US-Korean exercises were originally planned for the peninsula's west coast, in the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan went down, but they were moved after China protested. China, anxious to assert its interests in the Yellow Sea, does not claim sovereignty over that large body of water but says US operations there would threaten the Chinese mainland.
It was after US-Korean exercises that the George Washington then sailed around the rim of east Asia to the South China Sea. The standoff from Southeast to Northeast Asia raises the whole question of how to face China’s rising military as well as economic power.
“You won’t find anyone saying we’re trying to ‘contain China,' " says Brown, who as a senior US diplomat coordinated with the former South Vietnamese government in battling communist forces from Hanoi, “and the last thing the Vietnamese want is to announce an alliance with the US.”
Nonetheless, Brown, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says. “We’re trying to resist China’s propensity to say, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine also.’”
So much have US and Vietnamese relations flourished in recent years that they’re negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement under which the US would provide fuel for nuclear energy plants in which US companies could invest. The US is now Vietnam’s second biggest trading partner after China with $15 billion in annual two-way trade, hugely balanced in favor of Vietnam exports to the US.
To Mark Fitzpatrick, a former proliferation expert at the State Department, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who last visited Vietnam late last year, it “makes eminent sense for the US and Vietnam to improve ties.” Although Vietnam’s economy” was overheating last year,” he says, “it remains one of the most dynamic, fast-growing economies of the world.”
And for Vietnam, “concerned about China’s territorial claims, past border disputes and growing assertiveness,” he adds, “the US is a natural and much-welcomed partner” as memories of the Vietnam War recede into “ancient history and both nations are inclined to look more to the future.”