Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Vietnam, USA Faces Balancing Act With Assertive China

HANOI, Vietnam — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates landed on Sunday in Vietnam, where the narrative of a past war with the United States has faded as the leadership here openly seeks American support to counter an increasingly assertive China.

Mr. Gates has scheduled private talks with his Vietnamese counterpart during a conference of defense ministers from across the region, where a key issue will be how to manage Beijing’s expanded claims of maritime rights in the South China Sea. China has backed those claims with threats of economic retaliation against some nations in the region.

A senior Defense Department official traveling aboard Mr. Gates’s airplane to Hanoi chose careful phrasing to describe how defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to discuss issues of counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and, with China in attendance, how to respond to Beijing’s push for increased sovereignty over international waters.

The question before the ministers, said the senior Pentagon official, is, “how we can build multilateral capacity to address some of these key challenges in region.”
It is clear Mr. Gates faces a delicate balancing act.

He must reassure Asian partners and allies that the United States will remain engaged in the region and will work for a peaceful resolution of an intense clash of claims over islands, undersea mineral wealth and fishing rights. But Mr. Gates must deliver that message in a way that does not hinder his equally important efforts to restore a healthy military-to-military dialogue with China.

The defense secretary’s expected arguments to China are clear: Beijing’s dash to become a global economic power requires it to honor accepted standards for sharing oceans and airspace, and harassment of ships and airplanes in international lanes off its shores benefits none and will only harm Beijing’s long-term interests.

China is expected to offer Mr. Gates an invitation to visit Beijing, which would be a significant change in tone. China froze military relations with the United States earlier this year when the Obama administration announced $6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

Mr. Gates arrived in Vietnam 15 years after normalization of relations between the two countries, but the streets were overflowing with revelers for another celebration -- the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. Over that millennium, China and Vietnam have a long history of bloody competition, one that was buried for the years that Vietnam was aided by China in pushing back American military involvement here.

Vietnam’s worries over Chinese encroachment can be seen in its recent choices for weapons purchases. Last year, Vietnam signed deals with Russia to buy six Kilo-class diesel-powered hunter-killer submarines for $1.8 billion and eight Sukhoi jet-fighters for another $500 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Both weapons are designed for protecting territorial waters and air space, and the arms deals illustrate Russia’s desires to support nations trying to curb China’s power.

The United States, while seeking to constantly improve diplomatic and military relations with Vietnam, has offered little in the way of weapons, mostly focusing its assistance on military training and officer education. Washington has continuing human rights concerns with Vietnam, mostly about ensuring freedom of religion here. New York Times

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