- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

HANOI — Plans for a groundbreaking visit by a U.S. frigate next month reflect Vietnam’s increased interest in mutual cooperation against terrorism in Southeast Asia, a U.S. official said yesterday.

Military officials first disclosed plans for the visit to The Washington Times during a briefing in Hawaii earlier this month.

“A U.S. Navy ship should be steaming up the river to Ho Chi Minh [City] later in November,” the U.S. official said yesterday, referring to the former Saigon.

He added that the visit, the first by a U.S. military vessel since the Vietnam War, was timed to follow closely a visit to the United States by Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra. He said the details still were being worked out.

Military-to-military cooperation with Vietnam began in earnest just two years ago, said the official, who noted that France, Australia and other countries already have undertaken such military missions.

Commercial links and bilateral trade have exploded since the old war enemies normalized relations in 1995, but military and law-enforcement links, as well as intelligence exchanges, have been limited.

Although a wariness of the United States persists, the overlap in strategic interests seems to be winning out.

“In the last two years, we started to make a lot of progress,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He noted that the Vietnamese military this year had for the first time participated in the U.S.-sponsored Asia Pacific Chiefs of Defense meeting in Hawaii and observed the “Cobra Gold” military exercises in Thailand.

“Both countries recognized that there are transnational issues that require cooperation,” such as terrorism, piracy on the high seas and trafficking in drugs and people, the official said.

Terrorism seemed a remote issue to the Vietnamese until the Bali bombing that left 202 dead in Indonesia, the Marriott Hotel explosion in Jakarta, the capture of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Hambali in Thailand, and the appearance in Cambodia of radicals linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.

“All of that gave them a sense that maybe it’s not so far away after all,” said the U.S. official. “In the last few months, Vietnam has been viewing the issue with a greater sense of the fact that it could affect Vietnam.”

The main thrust of U.S. cooperation with Vietnam until now has been the recovery of POW/MIAs and increased commercial exchanges.

“There’s been an explosion of bilateral trade” as Vietnam has opened up to the world market, the official said. In recent years, Hanoi has rushed to create jobs for the country’s 80 million people after its long isolation from the regional and world economy.

But political reform and respect for human rights are lagging, he said.

“It is a balancing act,” he said. “Vietnam has had some administrative reform; it is moving toward better governance. But the goal is to move toward a much more market-driven economy while maintaining the party system.”

Vietnamese officials, who often cite the Chinese model of economic reform under one-party rule, defend the need of the government to maintain rigid political control.

“We need to absorb the good values of the international community, but we need to filter,” said Phi Nhu Chanh, director of the International Relations and Popularization Department.

“The government has its own policy to defend the national identity from bad influences from the outside” or those “not in conformity with our cultural national identity,” Mr. Phi said.

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