US aircraft carrier in Vietnam on historic visit
Danang — A US aircraft carrier arrived in Vietnam on Monday for the first time since the end of the war in April 1975, as the former foes bolster military ties in the face of Beijing’s build-up in the disputed South China Sea.
The USS Carl Vinson will make a four-day port call to the central city of Danang for a symbolic trip that will include a visit to a centre for victims of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant sprayed over large swathes of land by the US during the war.
But continuing tension in the South China Sea looms over the trip as Beijing continues to build artificial islands capable of hosting military installations, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and other claimants to the sea.
Though the US is not a claimant to the waterway, through which $5-trillion in trade passes annually, it has long lobbied for freedom of navigation there to counter China’s growing influence.
The US and Vietnam have seen an extraordinary turnaround in relations since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.
Hailing the "dramatic progress" in that relationship, US ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said the visit underscored US commitment to the region and to Vietnam in particular.
"The United States and Vietnam share a range of interests including a desire to maintain peace, prosperity, unimpeded commerce, [and] freedom of navigation, upon which the region and its economies depend," he told reporters.
Though US military ships have regularly docked in Vietnam in recent years, this is the first port call for an aircraft carrier. It will anchor just off Danang, where US Marines landed 53 years ago in March — the first direct involvement by US combat troops in the war. Ties between the wartime enemies have warmed in recent years, especially under former president Barack Obama, who in 2016 lifted a decades-old arms embargo.
President Donald Trump has insisted he will remain engaged in Asia, but his strategy has been led by his "America First" clarion call, insisting that Vietnam buy more military equipment from the US and reduce its yawning trade deficit.
One of Trump’s first acts in office was withdrawing from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, from which Vietnam stood to gain much.
Analysts say the port call, which follows a visit to the Philippines in February, is a chance for the US to flex its military muscle in Asia.
"It’s a US push … to demonstrate a massive naval presence in the South China Sea area to China, that the US is staying engaged," Vietnam expert Carl Thayer said ahead of the trip.
US officials refused to be drawn on the apparent tensions with China, insisting the trip was a routine deployment.