This week, the USS John McCain is engaged in military exercises
in the South China Sea - setting a new threshold in US-Vietnam ties.
In the latest twist to Southeast Asia's blood-stained history,
this week the USS John McCain is training Vietnamese forces in the
South China Sea in search-and-rescue.
"It's extraordinary considering we were bombing Vietnam," says
Frederick Brown, who was US consul-general in Danang in the early
1970s as war raged in Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies. "It's
something the US and Vietnam want to do. It's a military-to-
Adding to the historical irony, the USS John McCain, a guided
missile destroyer equipped with the latest aegis counter-missile
system, is named for the grandfather and the father, both US Navy
admirals, of US Senator John McCain, who was imprisoned in Hanoi for
more than five years after his US Navy plane was shot down in the
The USS McCain called at the central Vietnam port of Danang on
Aug. 10 for what were called "cultural visits" two days after
Vietnamese officials were flown out to the aircraft carrier George
Washington, a 97,000-ton behemoth cruising the waters in defiance of
China's claims to the entire South China Sea.
The blossoming relationship between the US and Vietnam is all the
more remarkable considering Vietnam's relationship with neighboring
China, its strongest ally during the Vietnam War. Vietnam now
appears to want to balance one great power against another while
China flexes its muscles around the Chinese mainland.
"I can only imagine the Chinese are not happy about it," says Mr.
Brown. "The Chinese with sharp elbows are trying to assert their
US and Chinese views collided last month when China's foreign
minister, Yang Jiechi, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had
staged "virtually an attack on China" after she told diplomats at
the Association of South East Asian Nations in Hanoi that
sovereignty was "a leading diplomatic priority."
Those remarks provided diplomatic background noise to Chinese air
and naval exercises in the South China Sea around the Spratly
Islands, a cluster of islets and reefs claimed in whole or part by
Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, as well as China. And Vietnam
has long protested China's hold over the Paracel Islands, seized by
Chinese forces from the old South Vietnamese army in 1974 and held
since then by China.
"It's all shadow boxing," says Carl Robinson, who spent years in
Vietnam as a journalist and US aid worker and is now there leading
lengthy tours of the country. "But the world does need to start
paying more attention to those offshore islands and what's actually
going on there."
Vietnam's 'very clever stuff'
Mr. Robinson says Vietnam "as usual, is playing all sides just
like it did during the war" when it relied on China and the Soviet
Union, often at odds with one another, for arms. …