The U.S. is ready to take relations with Vietnam to a “new level” 15 years after establishing diplomatic ties with its former adversary, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Vietnam is on the verge of becoming a “great nation” and the U.S. is keen to promote further economic progress, she told reporters in Hanoi today after meeting Vietnam’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem.
“We see this relationship as important not only on its own merits,” but also in the context of the larger Southeast Asia region, Clinton said. The two countries fought a war ending in 1975 that killed 58,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 3 million Vietnamese.
Closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam come as American military officials say China’s military buildup raises security concerns for the region. China claims the entire South China Sea as its own, putting it at odds with Vietnam and other countries that also declare sovereignty over islands in a waterway that may contain oil and gas reserves.
The U.S. and Vietnam have taken steps on defense cooperation since normalizing relations, including visits by U.S. Navy ships to Vietnamese ports. Clinton said the U.S. seeks to tap opportunities in Vietnam even as she expressed concern about stifling dissent and civil rights.
“Vietnam with its extraordinary dynamic population is on the path to becoming a great nation with an unlimited potential,” Clinton said. “That is among the reasons we express concern about the arrests and conviction of people for peaceful dissent, attacks on religious groups and curbs on Internet freedom.”
‘Frank and Constructive’
The “frank and constructive” talks covered education, health, environmental protection and defense issues, Khiem said.
“I reaffirmed the commitment of Vietnam to strengthen our relationship with the U.S. in the spirit of leaving the past behind,” he said, acknowledging their different views over human rights issues.
China told some international oil and gas companies to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, a U.S. official told Congress last year. China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia claim all or part of the Paracel and Spratly islands, groups of rocky outcrops in the sea with unproven oil and gas deposits.
The South China Sea, stretching from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan, is an “area of growing concern,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Singapore last month. Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc are among companies that have halted projects in the sea because of China’s objections, according to U.S. government agencies.
Vietnam’s which joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1995, has the third-biggest population of the grouping’s member states with 87 million people. Average economic growth in Vietnam has exceeded 7 percent over the past decade, pushing per-capita income past the $1,000 mark. The Vietnamese government is targeting a figure of as much as $3,000 by 2020.