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Top US Military Officer in Vietnam for Historic Talks

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (C) reviews the guard of honor with his Vietnamese counterpart General Do Ba Ty during a welcoming ceremony at Vietnam's Defense Ministry in Hanoi, Aug. 14, 2014.

The United States’ top military officer is in Vietnam for historic talks with Communist Party officials, as part of the latest effort to expand defense ties between the two former foes.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets Thursday in Hanoi with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh.

Before entering a closed-door meeting, Dempsey told reporters the visit is “one of the highlights” of his career. It is the first time since 1971 a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has visited Vietnam.

Vietnam’s defense ministry said the talks will focus on boosting military cooperation, with a focus on maritime security, search and rescue, and overcoming the legacy of war.

Though trade between the two countries has flourished since the normalization of relations in 1995, military ties have been hampered by a U.S. ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam. There has been speculation the U.S. could soon lift the ban, which was put in place during the war that ended in 1975.

The increased defense cooperation comes as Hanoi is involved in a bitter dispute with Beijing over territory in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, China placed a state-run oil rig in the disputed area. It later removed the rig, but the move left hard feelings with many Vietnamese.

Dempsey’s trip will also include a stop at a former U.S. air base in Danang. An effort there is under way to clean up the harmful remnants of Agent Orange, a defoliant that was sprayed by U.S. planes during the war to get rid of jungle cover for guerrilla fighters.

Vietnam said at least three million of its citizens were affected by the chemicals, and that one million still suffer health problems because of the exposure.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.