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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 12, 2012

US, Vietnam inch closer together
By Lien Hoang

HO CHI MINH CITY - The United States could not have chosen a more potent location. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta nudged Vietnam to host more US military craft, he spoke last week aboard a navy ship docked 480 kilometers north of this city, standing literally against the backdrop of the South China Sea.

In recent years, the sea has been the main setting for encounters much less diplomatic than Panetta's visit, usually pitting China against Vietnam, the Philippines, or a handful of other Southeast Asian nations. And now another player has firmly entered the fray: America.

The US has long positioned itself as a neutral bystander in the regional drama, in which six nations joust for control over the South China Sea's oil, gas, fisheries, and trade routes. But


Panetta's first Asia tour colored with some detail how America intends to "pivot" towards Asia, particularly among smaller countries eyeing warily an ascendant China.

After telling a Singapore defense conference on June 2 that 60% of US warships would be based in the Pacific by 2020, Panetta stopped over in Vietnam, the only South China Sea claimant country on his itinerary. Here he said that the US would shift emphasis to Asia by working "with partners like Vietnam to be able to use harbors like this," pointing to Cam Ranh Bay, which surrounded him.

No US defense secretary had been to this southern deep-water bay, which opens into the South China Sea, since the Vietnam War. French, American, and Soviet militaries each used the port in turn, but Vietnam has barred war vessels from the facility since Russia left around a decade ago.

Now Panetta hopes to change that as one ingredient in a US recipe to build up power in a region Washington neglected while China was quintupling its military spending, according to the Associated Press. But any mention of America's rebalancing act in Asia comes with the official caveat that China should not feel threatened.

"I reject that view entirely," the Pentagon chief said in Singapore in response to the notion US moves in the region aim to counterbalance China. Panetta's reassurances, however, did little to pacify China's hawkish media, though US officials insist they only want South China Sea disputes settled by international standards to maintain freedom of navigation.

The problem, however, is that "freedom of navigation" holds different meanings for China and the US. Patrick Cronin, senior director at the Center for a New American Security's Asia-Pacific Security Program, said Washington considers the phrase a green light for offshore commercial and military activity all over the world. Beijing takes a stricter line, demanding prior approval for naval conduct in and around its claimed territory.

"This is where globalization potentially collides with geopolitics," Cronin said on June 4 at a forum on the South China Sea hosted by the Asia Society in New York.

The US is still determining the contours of its "pivot" policy towards Asia, where it's apparently determined to uphold trade and security interests without irking China. But that's difficult to do in Vietnam.

Age-old antagonism
Few other countries have had as ancient and schizophrenic a relationship with China. The middle kingdom arguably exerted the deepest historical impact on Vietnamese language, arts, politics, religion, and social tradition. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find citizens here showing solidarity with their giant northern neighbor.

While Vietnamese officials seek a pragmatic middle ground, the general public views scuffles at sea as yet another iteration of bullying from China, which ruled Vietnam for 1,000 years and fought deadly battles with it into the 1980s.

Even Panetta's host city of Cam Ranh highlighted anti-China impulses. The bay has been the subject of many recent reports in Vietnamese media complaining that Chinese fishermen masquerade as researchers to smuggle large and largely profitable fish back home.

Authorities have expelled the fishermen in an ironic reversal of Vietnam-China relations: Typically, it has been China giving the boot to Vietnamese fishermen from waters surrounding the South China Sea's Paracel and Spratly Islands, which both countries claim.

If the US has an instinctive cohort then in curbing Chinese hegemony, Vietnam is it. And all the players hold strategic cards.
From Cam Ranh Bay, Panetta flew to Hanoi where Vietnamese officials announced that they would clear US military teams to scour three new sites for MIAs from the Vietnam War. Stars and Stripes, a newspaper backed by the US Department of Defense, reported last month that commanders are pushing to wrap up MIA searches within the decade.

At the same press conference, Vietnamese defense minister Phung Quang Thanh said that if the two countries are to fully normalize relations, the US must lift its arms embargo on Vietnam. Earlier, Thanh had made similar comments previewing Panetta's visit in an interview with a Vietnamese online newspaper, when he also lamented that the US did not appropriately recognize the country's market economy.

Panetta responded not so differently from US Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman after they visited here in January. The defense chief repeated that the weapons ban would stay in place until Vietnam improves its human-rights record, marked by an ongoing crackdown on political dissent and religious freedoms.
The only difference now is that Vietnam is showing a little more of its hand. It may have given the US access to three new MIA search sites, but eight others remain off limits. What's more, the US needs strategically-located ports like Cam Ranh Bay to press ahead with its newly-announced modus operandi of rotating troops through the region, in place of building permanent, Cold-War-style bases.

That should be much less expensive for the world's biggest military, which is currently looking to shed nearly $500 billion in spending over the next decade, as directed by the US Congress. Subject to lawmakers' partisan wrangling in this year's budget talks, that figure could move closer to $1 trillion over the same period.

The US Defense Department's new approach also could project a much more benign America that makes friends in the region rather than obsessing with hard power. Vietnam, which prides itself in a history of ejecting foreign intruders, would not want to be seen as a pawn of the US, or, for that matter, China.

So perhaps it didn't hurt that Panetta showed up in Cam Ranh in innocuous apparel: a baseball cap, short sleeves, khakis, and sunglasses. One Vietnamese newspaper commented that Panetta looked less like a Pentagon chief and more like a retiree on a relaxing weekend at sea.

Lien Hoang is a freelance reporter covering Southeast Asia. Connect with her at Twitter.com/lienh.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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