WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2014 —
Building trust and confidence is the theme for the first visit by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Vietnam since 1971.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey met with his Vietnamese counterpart Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty in Hanoi. The two men discussed the future of the military-to-military relationship between their countries, but also the legacy of the Vietnam War. The chairman will also visit Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City during his visit.
Dempsey’s visit is a message to the region that the United States is serious about the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, even as the American military is confronted with challenges in other parts of the world, defense officials said.
Dempsey said in an interview with USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook that his formative years were colored by the specter of the war in Vietnam. Dempsey graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1974 -- too late to serve in that war.
“I said to General Ty that ‘I spent the first four years of my military career preparing to fight you,’” Dempsey said. “There’s something profound about being here now trying to build a relationship on the basis of common interests.”
And the two countries do have common interests. Vietnam’s geostrategic position -- sitting between straddling China and Southeast Asia -- makes the nation an important factor player in finding a peaceful solution to the territorial issues in the South China Sea, the chairman said.
“They probably have more influence on the South China Sea and how it evolves than any other country,” he noted.
The two military leaders also discussed longstanding issues related to the Vietnam War, including the U.S. Agent Orange remediation program, finding and recovering U.S. personnel and addressing the problem of leftover unexploded ordnance. The two countries cooperate closely on all these issues, Dempsey said. “We owe it to each other to keep making progress on those [issues],” he said.
These programs were more prominent in discussions a year ago than they are today, Dempsey said. “We’re moving beyond those legacy war issues and toward a new relationship,” the chairman said.
All relationships are founded on trust “and that doesn’t happen overnight,” the general said.
The U.S. and Vietnamese militaries are working together in maritime security, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. “We’ve made a tentative agreement to increase the frequency and depth of our staff talks so we understand each others’ long-term strategies for the region,” Dempsey said. “That’s the place where we can make the most progress.”
Dempsey said he’s seeing more information sharing happening between the United States and Vietnam in the maritime domain as well as more work with maritime law enforcement.
“We’re working most closely right now with their coast guard, to establish a law enforcement capability to protect their economic exclusion zone … so they don’t get militarized,” he said.
U.S. officials are also working with Vietnamese counterparts to enhance the training program for maritime operations.
Dempsey stressed that the U.S. interest in Vietnam is not all about countering China. “The shadow of China hangs over the region,” he said. “Everyone thinks our interest here is just about China. It’s not.”
The rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region is inevitable as the area grows and expands in economic, political and diplomatic clout, he said.
“This is important and we do have our shoulder behind it,” the chairman added.
This was Dempsey’s first visit to Vietnam and he said he was struck by the vibrancy of life and the colors of the city.
“…Standing on the platform for the honor ceremony, listening to the two national anthems and seeing the two national flags flying side-by-side, it occurred to me that often adversaries in the past can become our closest friends,” the chairman said. “That won’t happen without some effort, but I think there’s a possibility there.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDODNews)