HO CHI MINH CITY -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrived in Ho Chi Minh City Tuesday on a rare second visit to Vietnam within a year, as the two countries strengthen ties amid growing tensions with China in the South China Sea.
Mattis is on a two-day visit and he was welcomed by Ho Chi Minh City Communist Party chief Nguyen Thien Nhan.
Mattis will visit Bien Hoa air base, about 25 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh, a key station for American forces during the Vietnam War. The base is the site of a U.S.-sponsored cleanup of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. during the war.
Mattis will hold a discussion with Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich before heading to Singapore to participate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers' Meeting, scheduled for Thursday through Saturday.
This is his second visit to Vietnam this year, which is considered "unusual," according to the Military Times, an army news portal based in the U.S., as Ho Chi Minh City is rarely on the itinerary for U.S. defense officials. The visit symbolizes closer ties between the two countries amid China's growing presence in the South China Sea where Vietnam also has an overlapping territorial claim.
Other than the Agent Orange clean-up, support for Vietnamese peacekeepers in South Sudan and Vietnam's purchase of Russian weapons -- which may run afoul of U.S. sanctions against Moscow -- could also be included in the discussions.
Mattis visited Vietnam in January and held talks with Lich in Hanoi. The trip was followed by the visit of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in March to Danang, the first such visit since the war. This was thought to be a message to China that the U.S. is intentionally strengthening partnerships in the region as a counterweight to its assertiveness.
Mattis was originally scheduled to visit China as part of this Asia trip, but that schedule was changed as trade and defense disputes intensified between the U.S. and China. Beijing recently rejected a request for a Hong Kong port visit by an American warship, while Mattis withdrew an invitation for China to join a major maritime exercise in the Pacific in the summer. In September, Beijing withdrew its navy chief from a Pentagon visit and demanded that Washington cancel an arms sale to Taiwan.
The U.S. and Vietnam, two former enemies, have built closer relations recently as both share concerns about China's militarization activities in the South China Sea. It is clear from the U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy that Washington views Vietnam as an important strategic partner, according to Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on Southeast Asia.
He added Vietnam's importance will increase when it becomes ASEAN Chair in 2020 and when it is elected a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is stepping up defense diplomacy through engagement with foreign navies, including South Korea, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, India and New Zealand, signaling that maritime powers are stakeholders in the security of the South China Sea.