The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific proposed several steps to expand military relations with Vietnam Friday, during talks with senior officials in Hanoi. But the Vietnamese officials indicated they are not ready for as much expansion as their American visitor would like to see.
Admiral William Fallon told Vietnam's new defense minister he wants more visits to Vietnam by U.S. Navy ships, and he wants the two countries' navies to conduct a search and rescue exercise at sea. The admiral said such an exercise would not only help deepen U.S.-Vietnamese relations, but it could also have practical benefits, in case of an accident at sea or a natural disaster.
The minister, Colonel General Phung Quang Thanh, said he would pass the suggestions to Vietnam's top officials, but he also said the government is concerned that such an exercise might be misunderstood by other countries, an apparent reference to China. He said the development of U.S.-Vietnamese defense relations is very sensitive, both inside Vietnam and in other countries, so any move must be considered very carefully. Later, another senior Vietnamese military officer said he does not expect the leadership to agree to the admiral's proposal.
In a VOA interview, Admiral Fallon said it was clear to him on the first day of his first official visit to Vietnam that military relations will continue to develop more slowly than diplomatic and economic relations.
"We still have a way to go in the relationship, certainly in the mil-to-mil [military-to-military]," he said. "There is obviously lots of caution evident in the reactions and approaches from the folks that we had interactions with today. It's pretty obvious to me that the government here will be very cautious in their engagement."
Vietnamese officials were more positive about other proposals the admiral made, to send the country's senior military officer to an annual meeting of regional defense chiefs, hosted by the admiral, and to upgrade the level of annual bi-lateral military talks. Admiral Fallon says that could help lead to a broadening of joint military activities.
The Vietnamese officials also called for more cooperation on searching for soldiers from both sides who have been missing since the Vietnam War. And they asked for more help in cleaning up contamination from chemicals used by the United States during the war, and unexploded weapons throughout the country, which continue to kill and injure people every year.
The deputy chief of the Vietnamese military, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Duc Soat, also asked the admiral to facilitate a visit to the United States next month by a Vietnamese military team that specializes in disaster relief.
But the concern about China is blocking the expansion of working-level military contacts, at least for now.
"They will have to come to grips with this themselves, and reconcile their perception of how their activities with us would be, or might be perceived by others," he added. "I tried to make the point with them that there's a wide range of activities, many of them that are far short of military-to-military operations or high-level exercises. There are things that ought to be pretty non-controversial."
At a meeting with Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem, Admiral Fallon asked him to urge the military to expand contacts, as he has asked, and called for Vietnam to take a more active role in regional issues, including the effort to convince North Korea to stop testing long-range missiles. The minister said Vietnam is taking a larger regional role through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but does not consider itself a leading member of the organization.
Admiral Fallon said, "you should," telling the foreign minister multi-lateral activities can have a stronger impact on security issues than bi-lateral efforts.
Admiral Fallon's visit to Vietnam is designed to follow-up on an agreement to expand defense relations, reached last month during a trip by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The admiral continues his visit in central and southern Vietnam on Saturday.