PENTAGON - A U.S. Navy hospital ship is heading across the Pacific on a humanitarian mission with stops planned in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The USNS Mercy left its home port of San Diego, California, on Friday, along with the expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Fall River.
The ships are carrying some 800 military and civilian personnel from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Peru and Japan. The Navy said the international team will partner with host nations to provide medical and dental exchanges, along with disaster-response training.
Navy official Lt. Marycate Walsh told VOA on Friday that USNS Mercy's humanitarian mission in the Pacific, dubbed Pacific Partnership, is the largest annual disaster-response mission in the region. The first Pacific Partnership began in response to the December 2004 tsunami, which devastated several areas in South and Southeast Asia.
After the mission concludes, the USNS Mercy is expected to travel to Japan before returning to California.
The mission comes as a U.S. aircraft carrier is set to make a port call in Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, a signal of strengthening military ties between the former wartime enemies.
A U.S. Navy official told VOA on Friday that the USS Carl Vinson was set to visit Danang in March.
The idea of a potential carrier stop surfaced when U.S. President Donald Trump met Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in May 2017.
Talks continued in August when Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington, and Mattis again mentioned expectations for a U.S. aircraft carrier stop in Vietnam during his visit to the country in January.
The United States has sought closer ties with Vietnam as the nation has increasingly stood up to China's disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.