Vietnamese officers visit U.S. aircraft carrier as China celebrates navy anniversary
Vietnamese defence officials flew out to visit the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis near Con Dao island off the Mekong Delta coast on Wednesday, marking a small but meaningful milestone in Vietnam-U.S. relations. It was the first time Communist Vietnamese defence personnel had ever been on a U.S. carrier, according to Vietnamese media. They even got to witness an F/A-18F take off an land.
The visit was a sign of how much some things have changed with time – and how little others have.
U.S. carrier-based planes used to bomb Vietnam — including one piloted by John McCain, who is pictured at left visiting the prison in Hanoi where he was held from 1967-1973 after his plane was shot down. Now, almost 34 years to the day after the end of the war, Vietnamese officers are doing a carrier tour, chatting with U.S. sailors, and talking about “strengthening mutual understanding” and “cooperating for peace in the region and world”.
But it is noteworthy, and perhaps not coincidental, that the Stennis visit took place one day before China planned to celebrate with fanfare the 60th anniversary of the founding of its fast-growing navy. Despite talk of friendship, including between two of the countries’ leaders, Vietnam has been, and no doubt will continue to be, very wary of its giant neighbour. The history of relations between the two countries is riddled with conflict.
Pick any Vietnamese town and half the streets will be named after generals, guerrillas or kings who repelled Chinese invasions through the centuries – Tran Hung Dao, Ly Thuong Kiet, Le Loi, Hai Ba Trung.
Beijing’s fleet modernisation, designed for power projection, is being watched closely and with some concern in Hanoi, which is locked in dispute with Beijing over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly island chains.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman in Hanoi told me the Vietnamese had made the request to tour an aircraft carrier long ago, and such visits are planned months in advance. The visit took place in international waters, and she said the U.S. had not requested a full-fledged port call.
Photo of McCain taken April 8, 2009, REUTERS/Kham; photo of F/A-18 landing on the deck of the Stennis, March 16, 2009, REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool