Residents of Vietnam’s coastal city of Da Nang have welcomed the first port call to their country by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the end of the Vietnam War, saying an increased U.S. presence in the region will help check increasingly aggressive claims by China over disputed territories in the South China Sea.
The USS Carl Vinson arrived in Da Nang on March 5 for a four-day visit that included a visit on Wednesday by U.S. sailors to a shelter for victims of Agent Orange, a toxic chemical the U.S. used as a defoliant throughout Vietnam during the war.
Ahead of its arrival, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang noted that the carrier—which was joined by guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer—was visiting following an agreement between U.S. President Donald Trump and his counterpart, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, during the former’s official trip to Hanoi in November last year.
The port call was arranged as part of a pledge to “continue promoting our relationship in the framework of comprehensive partnership, and to contribute to the maintaining of stability, peace, security, cooperation and development of the region,” Hang said at the time.
On March 5, following the arrival of the three American ships manned by around 6,500 sailors and Marines, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Robert Manning told reporters in Washington that the visit “marks a significant milestone in our bilateral relations and demonstrates the U.S. support for a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam.”
Manning stressed that the port call, and other U.S. operations in the South China Sea, are routine and “demonstrate our commitment to regional prosperity and stability.”
Some U.S. $5 trillion in cargo is transported along the South China Sea annually, and a number of nations hold competing territorial claims that have led to disputes in the region, including Vietnam, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore.
China has been aggressively asserting its claims throughout the South China Sea, building islands on reefs and setting up military installations on them, while countries including Vietnam claim that illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in their territorial waters is on the rise, prompting anti-China protests.
Beijing brushed off concerns about the visit on Tuesday, with an unsigned editorial in the state-run English-language Global Times saying it would do little to change Hanoi’s “strategic vision of simultaneously developing ties with Beijing and Washington.”
“However much U.S.-Vietnam military cooperation is upgraded, it will not embolden Hanoi to act as a U.S. outpost to confront Beijing,” the editorial said, adding that Hanoi “may consider using its collaboration with Washington as leverage to put pressure on China's South China Sea policy, but it is cautious about doing so.”
“The U.S. is free to send warships to the South China Sea, which will only waste money. China is much less interested in the USS Carl Vinson's Vietnam visit than American and Vietnamese nationalists.”
Residents weigh in
When asked about the presence of the aircraft carrier in his city’s port this week, Da Nang resident Ho Quang Huy told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he was excited about the prospects of the visit “opening up a diplomatic future with the U.S.” and reducing Chinese influence in the region.
“The Chinese are everywhere these days,” he said.
“With this visit, I hope to see more of an American presence here and less of a Chinese one.”
Another resident named Nguyen Van Hai told RFA that the visit “is very significant to us.”
“We live by the sea and off the sea, and we are directly affected by the [South China Sea] invaders,” he said, referring to Chinese incursions into Vietnamese territorial waters.
“Now this carrier comes and we feel more comfortable. We know that there are good people backing us and protecting us, since we can’t protect ourselves.”
But while Da Nang resident Hoang Thi Hong Thai welcomed the aircraft carrier’s visit, she cautioned that Vietnam should not rely solely on the U.S. to protect its interests.
“Vietnam has welcomed many foreign leaders—both U.S. President [Barack] Obama and current President Donald Trump have visited Vietnam,” she said.
“But our future can’t be dependent on the visit of a U.S. carrier. It depends on the will of our people.”
Deepening defense ties
Observers went further to say that the visit symbolized a “significant step” in the improvement of defense ties between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said in a commentary on Monday that the visit “signifies a greater level of trust” between the two countries.
“More importantly, the visit shows that the two countries are now much more comfortable … in conducting high-profile defense cooperation activities,” he said.
Hiep noted that following the end of a long-standing U.S. lethal arms sale ban on Vietnam, the two countries are now discussing possible arms deals, as well as the joint production of military equipment.
“The two sides should seize upon the positive momentum generated by USS Carl Vinson’s visit to turn bilateral high-profile defence cooperation into a ‘new normal,’” he said.
“The normalization and institutionalization of such defense cooperation activities will help deepen the ‘comprehensive partnership’ between the two countries and enable them to better meet the new security challenges arising from ominous shifts in the region’s geo-strategic landscape.”
Prior to the visit, regional expert Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in an assessment that Vietnam welcomes the U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea, “as long as it contributes to regional peace and security.”
“The USS Carl Vinson and its escort ships bring more power to the South China Sea than the potential of all seven of China’s artificial islands,” he said.
“What we are witnessing with the port visit by the USS Carl Vinson is a modest but significant step up in bilateral defense engagement.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.