DANANG, Vietnam: As the USS Carl Vinson docks at Danang port today (Mar 5) – the first time a United States navy aircraft carrier is visiting Vietnam in 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War – it will mark a further step in closer cooperation between the two nations, said a navy spokesperson.
Lieutenant Commander Tim Hawkins stressed that the historic port call was strictly “routine” in its objectives, and an opportunity for both nations to “learn from one another”.
But the significance of the visit is not lost on observers, amid ongoing tensions in the South China Sea which the USS Carl Vison patrols. Vietnam is one of the claimants in the territorial disputes with China, which has in turn challenged the US navy’s presence in the waters.
Addressing reporters on Feb 24 during a media visit on board ship of which Channel NewsAsia was a part, LCdr Hawkins said that unique to this port call would be “professional engagements” to build “people to people connections”.
These engagements will see a total of 300 Vietnamese experts in engineering, firefighting, culinary, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, medical and academia, boarding the USS Carl Vinson for two hours to “engage sailors, receive a tour and have a conversation”.
After this, it will be their turn to show their US counterparts how they do things locally – such as prepare food or do their work at a local shipyard.
“It’s not of military focus, it’s a cultural exchange,” said LCdr Hawkins.
The carrier’s crew will also take part in five community service projects across Danang, including visits to a social protection centre, mental illness treatment centre and Red Cross orphanage, he noted. In total,16,000 guests are expected aboard the carrier over the next few days.
“We know that it’s easier to work together at peace time. That’s what the port calls are about,” he said.
Captain Douglas C Verissimo added: “I hope it means that we can have a cooperative relationship and work together when it it’s good for all of us.”
There will also be official meetings between the carrier strike group leadership, Vietnamese Navy Zone 3 and the Danang People’s Committee.
DEEPENING MILITARY TIES
The visit is evidence of deepening military ties between the former antagonist nations.
A pivotal point in the warming ties of recent years came when former President Barack Obama visited Hanoi in May 2016. Among other things, he announced a full lifting of the US’ decades-old ban on weapon sales to Vietnam.
Smaller US navy ships have visited Vietnam but this is the first by a carrier. Talks over the port call first took place after the USS Carl Vinson hosted Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Defence Nguyen Chi Vinh off southern California last October - making him the country’s highest-ranking official to tour a US carrier.
Asked about disputed claims in the South China Sea, Admiral John Fuller, Commander of Carrier Strike Group 1, said the US was "not going to pick sides".
"The United States is here to maintain rules, laws and norms, and we’ll do that in South China Sea. We’ll do that wherever international laws allow us to operate," he said.