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International relations

US carrier arrives in Vietnam, putting China on notice

First such visit since war's end serves as check on Beijing's expansion

The USS Carl Vinson arrived in Vietnam's Danang Bay on Mar. 5.   © Reuters

DANANG, Vietnam/WASHINGTON -- An American aircraft carrier made a port call in Vietnam on Monday for the first time since the war between the two countries ended in 1975, a visit geared to tip the diplomatic scales against an expanding China.

The U.S. and Vietnam each seek to contest Beijing's projection of maritime influence through their show of improved ties and force. With China also hurrying to strengthen its navy, the Sino-American competition for superiority in the Asia-Pacific region appears bound to intensify.

Smartphone-wielding locals gathered on high ground overlooking Danang Bay in central Vietnam to witness the arrival of the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson. Danang saw heavy fighting during the war as the site of a major U.S. military base, but those gathered showed no sign of bearing a grudge.

The two countries "have gone from former enemies to close partners," the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, said in a statement.

Cultural exchanges are planned during the Carl Vinson's stay through Friday, and some of the carrier's crew will visit memorials to those who died from American use of the herbicide Agent Orange during the war, according to U.S. news media. The U.S. aims for the two nations to overcome their past and greatly increase defense cooperation, according to a source familiar with the Defense Department.

That effort appears squarely aimed at providing a check on China's use of its military and economic might to expand its influence in Asia. In recent years, Beijing has bickered with countries including Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial rights in the South China Sea, where China has been building islands in order to expand its sphere of control.

In January, the Defense Department labeled China and Russia "revisionist powers" seeking to undermine the international order. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid the groundwork for the Carl Vinson's visit in a trip to Vietnam shortly afterward. The carrier also stopped in the Philippines in February.

The Carl Vinson, a symbol of U.S. naval might, can carry at least 70 aircraft. It far outstrips China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in terms of fighting power and makes for a much more impressive show of force than other American naval vessels that have made port in Vietnam.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier.   © Reuters

The U.S. avoided the potentially more provocative choice of having the Carl Vinson visit Cam Ranh Bay to the south, which is closer to the Spratly Islands, whose sovereignty is disputed among parties including Vietnam and China. Washington appears to be keeping that diplomatic card in reserve while gauging Beijing's reaction.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has taken firm stances against China in the security and economic arenas, including by calling for Beijing to address their trade imbalance. The American government hopes to use its involvement with Vietnam and other countries to extract more favorable economic cooperation from Beijing, said a diplomatic source in Washington familiar with Japan-U.S. relations.

For Vietnam, which has objected most strongly to China over issues in the South China Sea, the expanding U.S. involvement in Asia has been fortunate. Last year, Vietnam deployed six submarines purchased from Russia to Cam Ranh Bay, but it cannot oppose Beijing alone.

This drives Vietnam to cooperate more closely with the U.S. and Japan as it seeks diplomatic leverage against China. In May 2017, Vietnam hosted a Japanese helicopter carrier in Cam Ranh Bay for what was called a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief drill.

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