HANOI -- America's top-ranking military officer met with his Vietnamese counterpart here Thursday, underscoring their countries' rapidly deepening military relationship.
Martin Dempsey became the first U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman to set foot in this country since the Vietnam War in 1971. At the outset of his meeting with Do Ba Ty, Vietnam's army chief of staff, Dempsey said his visit showed Vietnam's importance.
Military contact between the two countries remained infrequent even after they normalized diplomatic relations in 1995. In 2011, they signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation, agreeing to work more closely in maritime security and other areas. China's growing blue-water presence has hastened their rapprochement. Last December, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced $18 million in aid to Vietnam for maritime security, including five high-speed patrol ships.
Washington ended its ban on exports of nonlethal military equipment to Vietnam in 2007. An embargo on weapons sales may be lifted soon, Sen. John McCain told reporters here this month. At first, the arms trade should be limited to "defensive capabilities, such as coast guard and maritime systems," McCain said.
Vietnam's defense spending grew roughly fourfold in the past decade. But diversifying military procurement remains a challenge. The armed forces still rely mostly on Soviet-era and Russian-made gear.
The U.S. and Vietnam share concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the region. From May to July, Vietnamese and Chinese ships were locked in a standoff around an oil rig in the South China Sea. It was put there by China amid Vietnamese claims of territorial encroachment. Hanoi sees the U.S. as a shield against China, behind which Vietnam can build up its own forces. America, meanwhile, has recently forged a new military pact with the Philippines, another Southeast Asian country embroiled in territorial disputes with China.
Four decades since the end of the Vietnam War, Hanoi hopes that a visit by President Barack Obama will show both Vietnamese and the rest of the world that the two former foes are now bound by friendship. But Washington insists Vietnam must show more respect for human rights if it wants access to American weaponry. Troublingly, bloggers critical of Vietnam's one-party Communist rule have wound up behind bars recently.
The Obama administration is also concerned about inconsistency in Vietnam's stance toward China. Vietnamese criticism of its huge neighbor to the north has diminished since the offending oil rig was removed, leaving Washington struggling to discern Hanoi's true intentions.