April 7 (Bloomberg) -- Two U.S. Navy ships began six days of non-combat exercises with the Vietnamese military as the U.S. seeks to bolster its presence in Asia at a time of growing tension between China and its neighbors.
The engagements, the fifth year of joint exercises between the two navies, will focus on military medicine, search and rescue and shipboard damage control, with participation by the missile destroyer USS John S. McCain.
While non-combat in nature, the exercises between two former enemies in Danang carry symbolic weight as the Obama administration pursues closer economic ties with Vietnam through efforts such as the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and a deal to sell nuclear fuel and technology to Vietnam.
“It comes at a time when tension in the region is high and all the players in Southeast Asia seem to be carefully calibrating their behavior,” Jonathan London, assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies, said by phone.
“China’s efforts to impose its will over the entirety of the ‘Southeast Asian Sea’ has generated some urgency among various parties. Hanoi is clearly intent on continuing to strengthen its relationship with the United States,” he said, adding that the term is a politically neutral geographical designation for the disputed sea region.
About 400 U.S. Navy sailors and civilian mariners are participating in exercises with counterparts from the Vietnam People’s Navy, according to an e-mailed statement from the U.S. Navy today. The annual exchange with Vietnam “builds mutual trust and understanding,” U.S. Navy Captain Paul Schlise, commodore of Destroyer Squadron Seven, said in the statement.
Territorial disputes in South China Sea waters rich in fish, oil and gas have led to friction, in particular between China and its neighbors. Vietnam in March asked China to investigate two alleged attacks on Vietnamese fishing boats in January and March by Chinese ships near the Paracel Islands, according to Vietnam News. Vietnam in January described as “illegal” Chinese fishing rules requiring foreign vessels to seek permission to enter waters off its southern coast.
Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved a plan by the Ministry of Information and Communications to build a post office on the disputed Spratly Islands, according to a posting on the ministry website today, citing minister Nguyen Bac Son.
The joint exercises are similar in scale to previous years, Lieutenant Commander Clay Doss, a U.S. Navy public affairs officer, said today. “The quality and depth of the exchanges is increasing each year as our navies get to know each other better,” he said.
Alongside the exercises a symposium on military operations and law will be held at Danang University to discuss maritime security topics such as counter-piracy. Concerts, sporting events and community service projects are also planned. In addition to the McCain, the USNS Safeguard is participating in the exchange.
The U.S. and Vietnam have their own disagreements, particularly over human rights. During a review of Vietnam organized by the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, the U.S. in a statement called on Vietnam to revise “vague national security laws that are used to suppress universal rights and unconditionally release all political prisoners.”
While the U.S. seeks deeper relations with Vietnam as part of a larger increased engagement with Asia, Vietnam is pursuing closer relations with countries such as the U.S. as a hedge against China, with which it also must maintain good relationships, London said.
“Some people have referred to China’s politics as trying to create strategic uncertainty,” he said. “Vietnam, the Philippines, the U.S. and others are trying to inject some sort of strategy of certainty, at least at some level.”
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