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David Koh For The Straits Times

US-Viet romance puts China in a fix

Published on Aug 22, 2014 11:45 AM
General Martin Dempsey and his Vietnamese counterpart, Senior Lieutenant-General Do Ba Ty, reviewing the guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony held at the Defence Ministry in Hanoi on Aug 14. Gen Dempsey's visit to Vietnam earlier this month - the first by a top US military commander since 1971 - ushered in a new epoch in relations between the two countries. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The intrigue in the US-China-Vietnam triangular relationship deepened on Aug 13, when General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Armed Forces, visited Vietnam and met top military and political leaders. No doubt, China will watch with weary eyes, and perhaps even lament that this romance between its competitors is all its own doing.

Gen Dempsey, sent by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, said Mr Hagel and President Barack Obama told him: "The place for you right now is Vietnam."

His visit is the first by a top military commander from the US since 1971. And it was made despite other urgent military situations in the Middle East and eastern Europe.

The historic visit followed the return of US Senator John McCain from a trip to Hanoi a week earlier, and the visit of Vietnamese Political Bureau member Pham Quang Nghi to the US late last month.

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Background story

Conversations with military and top party officials reveal that though a closer relationship with the US could be advantageous for Hanoi, some party members, as well as Vietnamese leaders who fought in the war with the US, might not like it. China can be expected to use its lobbying power within Vietnam to present opposing views. It is also quite possible that Hanoi is simply posturing in a bid to get China to treat Vietnam more favourably.