by Hannah Beech
BANGKOK — For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, a U. aircraft carrier made a port call in Vietnam today, signaling how China’s rise is bringing together former foes in a significant shift in the region’s geopolitical landscape.
The vessel, the Carl Vinson, anchored off Danang, the central Vietnam port city that served as a major staging post for the US war effort in the country.
“It’s a pretty big and historic step, since a carrier has not been here for 40 years,” said Rear Adm. John V. Fuller, commander of the Carl Vinson strike group, whose father served in Vietnam.
“We hope to continue the same issue that we’ve always had,” he said, “and that’s to promote security, stability and prosperity in the region.”
The arrival of the Carl Vinson strike group’s 5,500 sailors marks the first time such a large contingent of U.S. military personnel has landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the U.S. troops withdrew in 1975.
During the four-day port call, the aircraft carrier’s personnel will visit an orphanage and a center for victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military that is blamed, through a toxic contaminant, for poisoning generations of Vietnamese.
Carrier sailors will also play basketball and soccer with Vietnamese counterparts.
For the past month, the Carl Vinson has been deployed in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Six governments have competing claims over various features in the South China Sea. In recent years, Vietnam, in particular, has watched warily as China, through extensive reclamation, has transformed bits of rock and reef it controls into sprawling artificial islands that now double as military bases.
In 2017 alone, China built permanent facilities on reclaimed land that “account for about 72 acres, or 290,000 square meters, of new real estate”, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Hanoi’s agreement to the aircraft carrier visit demonstrates Vietnam’s anxiety about what China will do next in the South China Sea,” said Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. is virtually the last man standing to which Hanoi can look for support in the South China Sea dispute.”
Although the United States is not a claimant in the maritime dispute, the Navy portrays its deployments in the South China Sea as important to ensuring maritime security and nurturing the conditions that have led to Asia’s post-World War II economic expansion.
“It’s a stable environment where you have the ability to actually foment economic growth,” Fuller said. “I think we’ve helped create the environment that has allowed for the 70 years of growth.”
The admiral declined to comment, however, on how China’s island-building is changing regional dynamics. Beijing protests whenever the United States conducts freedom of navigation operations in which Navy ships sail close to disputed maritime features controlled by China.
While the American War, as the Vietnamese call the conflict, lingers in U.S. memories as a bloody and ideologically charged confrontation, Vietnamese animosity toward China runs much deeper.
Communist fraternity between Beijing and Hanoi has not erased the fact that the Chinese Empire ruled Vietnam for a millennium. Four years after the last Americans withdrew from Saigon, Vietnam fought a border war with China. Since then, Chinese and Vietnamese troops have skirmished over ownership of islets in the South China Sea.
“No one trusts the Chinese,” said Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. “But everyone needs their money.”
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines in a case that questioned China’s vast claims in the South China Sea.
But that legal victory has proved largely irrelevant to regional geopolitics. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who took power days before the tribunal ruling, has declined to push Beijing to honor it.
Instead, he has cozied up to China and criticized the United States, a longtime ally. Beijing followed up with vows to invest billions of dollars in the Philippines.
Duterte’s departure from previous Philippine policy leaves Hanoi as the only country with major claims on the South China Sea that continues to denounce Beijing’s muscular actions.
In 2014, Beijing moved an oil-drilling rig into disputed waters not far from Danang. The Vietnamese responded with anti-Chinese protests that culminated in the deaths of two Chinese workers in southern Vietnam.
Yet geopolitics dictate that Vietnam cannot alienate China entirely.
“Vietnam works overtime trying to balance its ties between China and the U.S.,” Hiebert of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
When Beijing again moved the oil rig into contested waters in 2016, Hanoi ensured that there was no repeat of anti-Chinese rioting.
Although Washington has tried to coax Hanoi to expand naval exchanges with the United States, Vietnam has declined in order “to avoid irritating China,” Hiebert said.
Hanoi, which relies on Russia for most of its military equipment, has also refused to increase purchases of US weaponry, even though the United States lifted its embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in 2016.
President Donald Trump’s decision last year to scupper the Trans-Pacific Partnership irked Hanoi, which hoped the US-led trade pact would provide a counterweight to China’s growing economic influence in the region.
And even as the United States and Vietnam have hailed warming relations, a mounting crackdown on dissent by the Vietnamese authorities has curtailed hopes of political change. The tightened grip mirrors a similar clampdown by the Communist Party in China.
There are around 130 political prisoners in Vietnam, including environmental activists, religious advocates and the nation’s most famous female blogger, according to Human Rights Watch.
The State Department issued a statement last month calling on “Vietnam to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and to allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their views freely and assemble peacefully without fear of retribution.”