BANGKOK (AP) — A U.S. aircraft carrier and two guided missile cruisers were visiting Vietnam on Monday, a rare port call that comes as the United States and China increasingly vie for influence in Southeast Asia.
The USS Ronald Reagan, along with the guided missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Robert Smalls, arrived in Da Nang on Sunday for the visit.
Neighboring China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner but Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea have led to increasing friction with Vietnam, as well as with Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The U.S., meantime, has been on a diplomatic push to strengthen economic and military ties in the Indo-Pacific region.
The aircraft carrier’s port call — only the third such visit since relations were reestablished after the end of the Vietnam war — follows visits to Vietnam this year from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
“Though aircraft carrier visits often spark media attention because of their highly visible nature, the broader question is how this will play into the development of ties, including Washington’s quest to upgrade relations,” Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, wrote in a research note.
“An overly narrow focus on carrier visits can distract from the broader trend of the more comprehensive development of U.S.-Vietnam defense ties and relations more generally,” Parameswaran added.
Officers from the Ronald Reagan debarked Sunday and were greeted by Vietnamese officers after mooring in Da Nang, a port that was modernized and expanded by the United States during the war for its own use.
Capt. Daryle Cardone, the Ronald Reagan’s commanding officer, said some of the more than 5,000 sailors from the ship will volunteer at several community relations events, play sports with local athletes and take part in other cultural and professional exchanges during the visit through June 30.
“A few Reagan sailors call Vietnam home, but for most it will be their first time visiting,” Cardone said in a release from the U.S. Navy.
Washington sees Hanoi as a key part of its strategy for the region and has sought to leverage Vietnam’s traditional rivalry with its much larger neighbor China to expand U.S. influence in the region.
Japan, a strong U.S. ally, also made a port call in Vietnam last week with its largest destroyer, Izumo, following exercises in the South China Sea with the Reagan and other American ships.
China has also been reaching out in an effort to mend fences, sending a navy training ship to make its own port call in Da Nang a month ago as part of what it called a goodwill tour that also took it to Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry called the Reagan’s port call part of a “normal friendly exchange for the sake of peace, stability, cooperation and development in both the region and the world.”
Vietnam needs to balance its sensitive ties with Beijing with the U.S. outreach and domestic opinion, Parameswaran said, noting that polls suggest Vietnam’s people have among the highest levels of pro-U.S. sentiment in Southeast Asia.
Based in Yokosuka, Japan, the USS Ronald Reagan is the only forward-deployed American aircraft carrier. It is due to be replaced in that role next year by the USS George Washington, also a Nimitz-class carrier.