“We recognize that relationships never stay the same. They either get stronger or they get weaker, and America wants a stronger relationship with a stronger Vietnam,” Mattis told his counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich.
Mattis’s trip to Southeast Asia included a two-day visit in Indonesia, part of a larger Pentagon strategy to foster military relationships to blunt influence of big state powers such as Russia and China.
The United States believes it may have found a key ally in Vietnam. The nation is increasingly emboldened to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, a strategic region flush with resources.
China has mostly claimed the sea as its own and has studded artificial islands with radar arrays and military outposts, edging out Vietnam and other nations dependent on waters for fishing and commerce.
Vietnam-U.S. defense relations are still taking shape. Mattis said his talks with Vietnamese officials spurred creation of channels to develop military education and U.N. peacekeeping training but did not involve definite plans to sell or provide specific military equipment.
The United States sold a Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam last year, which officials said became the largest ship in its fleet.
That recent activity has relieved officials in Vietnam who believe the United States was too focused on brushfire insurgencies in the Middle East and Africa while China consolidated territory unchecked, said Zack Cooper, an Asia security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“They want to make sure the U.S. is actively engaged with the South China Sea,” Cooper said.
Mattis also met with Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and thanked Vietnam for supporting U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and he recognized U.S. efforts to remedy the effects of toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange left behind at a Danang air base.
He also met with President Tran Dai Quang. In each meeting, a strategically placed bust of wartime Communist leader Ho Chi Minh loomed over the talks.
Mattis will conclude his trip Friday, when he will meet his South Korean counterpart in Hawaii to discuss strategic issues in the region.
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