Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

U.S., Viet Leaders in Unlikely Warming of Relations

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

U.S., Viet Leaders in Unlikely Warming of Relations

Article excerpt

HANOI -- Vietnamese forces seized letters from the corpse of a young U.S. Army sergeant named Steve Flaherty after he was killed in battle more than four decades ago. A few miles south, a U.S. Marine similarly took a thin maroon diary off the chest of a Vietnamese soldier lying dead in a machine-gun pit after a firefight.

The two items -- relics of a bygone era when the United States and Vietnam were bitter enemies -- on Monday became symbols of the evolving U.S.-Vietnamese relationship.

At a meeting in the Vietnamese capital to discuss possible military cooperation, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta gave the diary to his counterpart, Phuong Quang Thanh. In return, Mr. Panetta was presented with Flaherty's letters -- the first high- level exchange of its kind.

The unlikely warming of relations between the two nations has accelerated over the past two years because of both sides' worries about China's growing influence and military assertiveness.

But the newfound friendship has clear limitations as well, mostly because of strong reservations from Vietnamese leaders, and has been relegated to largely symbolic acts. Ironically, those less- controversial acts -- which U.S. officials hope will strengthen the countries' budding relationship -- are rooted in the long and painful war that pitted the United States against Vietnam's communist leaders for a generation.

On the one hand, Vietnam wants a U.S. military presence to counterbalance China's ability and propensity to bully its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors, said one Vietnamese military officer, who requested anonymity to speak freely. But there also is a healthy dose of fear that the United States will overreach and begin interfering in or exerting undue influence on Vietnam's domestic and foreign policy.

"It is not a choice between U.S. and China for us. We are our own people," the officer said.

Vietnam also worries that moving toward the United States too quickly and overtly could cause a backlash from China.

Monday's meeting did not yield many concrete advances in military cooperation. But as an additional symbolic gesture, Vietnam agreed to open three previously restricted sites to U. …

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