US carrier to make landmark visit to Vietnam, the first since 1975

HONG KONG/HANOI The visit of a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War is a powerful symbol of the growing strategic ties between the former foes.

But the arrival today of the USS Carl Vinson also illustrates Hanoi's complex and evolving relationship with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.

For months now, Vietnamese envoys have been working to ease the concerns of their giant Chinese neighbour over the visit and the prospect of broader security co-operation between Hanoi and Washington, according to diplomats and others familiar with discussions.

Vietnamese diplomats and military officers have repeatedly stressed the country's independent foreign policy and its desire for broad foreign relations - hoping to maintain stable ties with China while standing up to it over the South China Sea, the sources said.

The USS Carl Vinson will mark the biggest United States military presence in the country since 1975 when it berths in Danang for a five-day stay.

The port city on Vietnam's central coast is close to its Blue Whale gas field now being developed by US oil major ExxonMobil, as well as the increasingly fortified Paracel Islands, which China occupies and Vietnam also claims.

While some Chinese commentators have used the vessel's presence to demand an even greater Chinese military build-up in the waterway, official reaction from Beijing has been relatively muted since the stop was confirmed in January.

US carriers frequently ply the South China Sea as part of a rising pattern of naval deployments, and are now routinely shadowed by Chinese naval vessels, regional naval officers say.

"Even as it moves forward with the US, Vietnam has been engaging China over South China Sea tensions," said Dr Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam expert at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"Gradualism is the key word here... Vietnam will only embrace the US... at a pace that doesn't cause an over-reaction from China."- AFP