Suddenly, Vietnam and America are becoming buddies

Well, not so suddenly; the rapprochement between the two countries has been going on for several years, but this news takes it to a whole new level:

Cold War enemies the United States and Vietnam demonstrated their blossoming military relations Sunday as a U.S. nuclear super carrier cruised in waters off the Southeast Asian nation’s coast — sending a message that China is not the region’s only big player.

The visit comes 35 years after the Vietnam War as Washington and Hanoi are cozying up in a number of areas, from negotiating a controversial deal to share civilian nuclear fuel and technology to agreeing that China needs to work with its neighbors to resolve territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The USS George Washington’s stop is officially billed as a commemoration of last month’s 15th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations between the former foes. But the timing also reflects Washington’s heightened interest in maintaining security and stability in the Asia-Pacific amid tensions following the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which killed 46 sailors. North Korea has been blamed for the attack, but has vehemently denied any involvement.

Last month during an Asian security meeting in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also angered China by unexpectedly calling on the Communist powerhouse to resolve territorial claims with neighboring Southeast Asian countries over islands in the South China Sea.

“The strategic implications and importance of the waters of the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation is vital to both Vietnam and the United States,” Capt. Ross Myers, commander of the George Washington’s air wing, said aboard the ship Sunday as fighter jets thundered off the flight deck above.

Threatened mutual interests make for alliances, even when the parties have a difficult shared history, as we do with Vietnam. The US is concerned with growing Chinese naval strength, which looks geared toward challenging our 65-year old dominance of the western Pacific, and especially with a potentially strong amphibious capability. The latter would be especially worrisome in a confrontation over Taiwan. The US is also concerned about Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, a major international shipping route, as this clashes with our traditional “freedom of the seas” policy. Sending a carrier battle group through the SCS is a way of visibly reinforcing the international character of the waters, sending a “just try and stop us” message. We can expect to see more of these transits in the next few years.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has to be concerned about its increasingly powerful and assertive giant neighbor to the north. Indeed, Vietnam was under Chinese domination for over a thousand years. More immediately, Vietnam (along with several other nations) also has territorial claims to the Spratly Islands, which are mostly under Chinese military control. Worth little in and of themselves, the islands enable their owners to establish territorial claims to the surrounding waters and any potential resources – particularly oil, which China needs to feed its booming economy, because it produces not nearly enough of its own. Thus the Vietnamese, who already have America as their biggest trading partner and investor, want an increased American military presence to give pause to Chinese ambitions. Our needs and theirs converge.

And while Vietnamese and US officials shake hands aboard the George Washington, you can bet they’ll be casting wary glance toward the dragon to the north.

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