Vietnamese officers visit U.S. aircraft carrier as China celebrates navy anniversary

April 23, 2009

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

18 comments

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I was sitting in the departure lounge at the Ho Chi Minh Internartional airport on Wednesday morning when as I was just looking out the window I saw a US Air Force twin engine turboprop airplane taxi by. a minute or two later I see a second plane taxi by on the way to the takeoff end of the runway. I thought, that is really interesting. Today i read that these planes took some high ranking Vietnam military out to the aircraft carrier. anyway, one of the more interesting sights from a departure lounge.

Posted by James L. Wait | Report as abusive

Von Clausewitz said, ‘War is the father of all things!’ I say, ‘Peace is the mother of all things!’

The Spratly island is belong to China from of old.The Vietnam occupied the majority of island by force.

Posted by panjilong | Report as abusive

Vietnam is a very aggressive country. Beware of her. They invaded Spratly at the time when China was weak at Navy Defence. Sooner or later (from the thousand years of history), they knew that they would be kicked out by the China Navy Defence team!

Posted by Joe Black | Report as abusive

The Spratly islands are nowhere near China or Vietnam (about 1500Km from China and 800Km from Vietnam). The islands are only 150Km or so from the Philippines. Google Maps it, will you.Anyhow, it’s almost laughable when people are still disputing blindly in these days and age. Grow up!

Posted by Annoying Bystander | Report as abusive

The issue, Annoying Bystander, has more to do with oil, gas, and fishing rights than the islands themselves, which if global warming continues apace, will become submerged beneath the rising seas by the end of the century if not sooner. I doubt that was a USAF twin engine turboprop, Mr. Wait; was probably a Navy transport, part of the normal complement of aircraft on each carrier. Very few USAF pilots or planes would be carrier rated, few of the planes would have the tailhooks required to land on a carrier.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

About the future conflicts in the South China sea, probably ultimately there would be only two giant opposing forces: the Chinese and the American ones. I wonder if the Chinese will end up like the Japanese did in 1945.

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

This is just great! After all those soldiers died in the Vietnam war we are now giving air rides and high fives to the commies. Every soldier that died in that war is probably turn in their graves right about now. Their death was in vain.

Hey Robert, guess you missed the fact that Vietnam and China have had centuries of conflict between them. The only reason they came together in the ’60′s and ’70′s was the common enemy, the US, in Vietnam. Moral: just because they’re communists doesn’t make them friends with each other.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

It seems that borisjimbo has a very good understanding about Southeast Asia politics. Every thing he wrote is correct.

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

Naw.. The American public would not want to return to South East Asia.. Much too bloody for them.. Look at Iraq.. just 8 years of war and already they are already looking for an exit strategy..

Posted by wong keat wai | Report as abusive

On February 17, 1979 about 120,000 Chinese forces invaded Vietnam and seized several Vietnamese towns. The Chinese withdrew shortly thereafter but I’m sure the Vietnamese rememeber the “incursion”.

Posted by doug lominac | Report as abusive

Sure.. In the 1400s, the King of England invaded France and caused a war that lasted 100 years…. Throughout the 1500s to 1800s, the French and the English are more wary of each other than anyone else..Then the French supported the Americans Rebels in their War of Independence against the British in 1776..The British raided Washington DC and burnt the White House sometime in 1820s (I can’t remember the exact date)..I am sure they too remember all that.. but politics are based upon current realities, not on historical pasts.Communism is a progressive ideology and in fact under Mao Tze Tung, China tried to “erased” it’s past through the Cultural Revolution just like what the French did during the French Revolution.

Posted by wong keat wai | Report as abusive

From what I’ve seen, the Vietnamese *definitely* remember the war with China, and remain wary of their mammoth neighbour. (After all, the history of conflict in this “asymmetric” relationship goes way beyond a few decades — and so does the collective memory in Vietnam.) At the same time, the leaders of the two countries have for the past 30 years done an admirable job of focusing on the future and building stronger relations. Vietnam specialist Carl Thayer compared the Vietnam-China relationship with that of Poland and Russia, two countries that have apparently not figured out how to get beyond the friction.

Posted by John Ruwitch | Report as abusive

Apologies, it was Brantly Womack, not Carl Thayer, who made the Poland-Russia comparison. Here’s a story I did in Feb with that reference: http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssEnerg yNews/idUSHAN42710920090215

Posted by John Ruwitch | Report as abusive

@ wong keat wai: the Americans are not fine fighters, but their military machine has been and is now the most stupendous in the world. It can cause havoc to any countries standing in their way.@ doug lominac, John Ruwitch: I am not on the Viet Cong’s side, but a quick check across the World Wide Web will convince you that most of non-Chinese writers agree that the Chinese lost the 1979 war against VC. In my opinion, to the Chinese, loosing face is worse than death. So they are willing to start a war which there is no hope of winning. Then they would wage the next war, until at the end they win (just same as in gamble, you accept the first lost. Then you double the bet, etc, until at the last one you win and offset all previous lost). In 1979, the Chinese force was 250,000 troops (check this link: http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/MONITOR/IS SUE3-3/bakshi.html). In 1986, they stationed 400,000 troops along the border with VN (check this link: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/w orld/war/prc-vietnam.htm). Luckily, after the death of the last furious Vietnam Communist leader, Le Duc Tho, in 1990 the situation was defused (VC sent a delegate to Beijing to say sorry and offered some lands and part of the sea to prove their good will), otherwise more troops from both sides died from vain cause, because now leaders from both sides are shaking hands and smiling.Someone says it would be better for the Chinese to keep their formidable Naval force for revenge of Nanking massacres, if they have guts. Again, no-win situation, isn’t it?

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

Thank you, Nguyen. Nothing like facts to break up a good but pointless argument. Needless to say I don’t listen to Rush much. I’ve kind of seen the relation among Germany, Poland, and Russia to be the European version of that among Japan, Korea, and China; weak buffer state between two frequently fighting larger states, generally having its territory seized by whoever won the last war. The White House was burned by the British when they invaded during the War of 1812 (1812-1814).

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

[...] not from some western wire service, that is a quote for Vietnamese media. The Paracel and Spratly island chains are contested by Vietnam and China. Both island chains are next to the borders of both nations. Both [...]

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@nguyanI never said the Chinese gained or won any battles after they invaded Vietnam in 79. The fact that Vietnam was able to give a bloody nose to the invader doesn’t translate that they are now perfectly comfortable with China. I read it was 120,000 troops that crossed over into Vietnam, either way they invaded. China is an expansionist power. Vietnam should be careful about letting the fox into the henhouse.

Posted by doug lominac | Report as abusive

[...] that view. Quite to the contrary, it launched a partnership with Australia, India and Japan (and possibly Vietnam too) to balance China’s growing naval potential; a potential that is greatly overestimated [...]

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