For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, a United States aircraft carrier is scheduled to make a port call in Vietnam on Monday, signaling how China’s rise is bringing together former foes in a significant shift in the region’s geopolitical landscape.
The vessel, the Carl Vinson, will anchor off Danang, the central Vietnam port city that served as a major staging post for the American war effort in the country.
“It’s a pretty big and historic step, since a carrier has not been here for 40 years,” said Rear Adm. John V. Fuller, the commander of the Carl Vinson strike group, whose father served in Vietnam.
“We hope to continue the same issue that we’ve always had,” he said, “and that’s to promote security, stability and prosperity in the region.”
The arrival of the Carl Vinson strike group’s 5,500 sailors will mark the first time such a large contingent of American soldiers has landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the United States troops withdrew in 1975.
During the four-day port call, the aircraft carrier’s personnel will visit an orphanage and a center for victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the United States military that is blamed, through a toxic contaminant, for poisoning generations of Vietnamese.
Carrier sailors will also play basketball and soccer with Vietnamese counterparts.
For the last month, the Carl Vinson has been deployed in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Six governments have competing claims over various features in the South China Sea. In recent years, Vietnam, in particular, has watched warily as China, through extensive reclamation, has transformed bits of rock and reef it controls into sprawling artificial islands that now double as military bases.
In 2017 alone, China built permanent facilities on reclaimed land that “account for about 72 acres, or 290,000 square meters, of new real estate,” according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Hanoi’s agreement to the aircraft carrier visit demonstrates Vietnam’s anxiety about what China will do next in the South China Sea,” said Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. is virtually the last man standing to which Hanoi can look for support in the South China Sea dispute.”
Although the United States is not a claimant in the maritime dispute, the Navy portrays its deployments in the South China Sea as important to ensuring maritime security and nurturing the conditions that have led to Asia’s post-World War II economic expansion.
“It’s a stable environment where you have the ability to actually foment economic growth,” Admiral Fuller said. “I think we’ve helped create the environment that has allowed for the 70 years of growth.”
The admiral F declined to comment, however, on how China’s island-building is changing regional dynamics. Beijing protests whenever the United States conducts freedom of navigation operations in which Navy ships sail close to disputed maritime features controlled by China.
While the American War, as the Vietnamese call the conflict, lingers in American memories as a bloody and ideologically charged confrontation, Vietnamese animosity toward China runs much deeper.
Communist fraternity between Beijing and Hanoi has not erased the fact that the Chinese Empire ruled Vietnam for a millennium. Four years after the last Americans withdrew from Saigon, Vietnam fought a border war with China. Since then, Chinese and Vietnamese troops have skirmished over ownership of islets in the South China Sea.
“No one trusts the Chinese,” said Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. “But everyone needs their money.”