The top U.S. military officer traveled to Vietnam last week to help strengthen regional security at a time when Vietnamese fear armed conflict with China over maritime disputes.
The visit by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, increased prospects that the United States may soon scrap its weapons embargo on Vietnam. But at the same time, Dempsey tempered hopes of heightened military cooperation with a message that Asia should not look to the United States when it clashes with China.
"I think fundamentally we would all agree that a stronger ASEAN response, which is to say a stronger multinational response, is really what's appropriate -- not necessarily, what does the United States intend to do about it," Dempsey told a small gathering of reporters here Saturday, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At issue for Vietnam and China is a swath of water and islands in the South China Sea claimed by both countries as well as four others. Despite repeating the official line that the United States doesn't "take sides in territorial disputes," Dempsey mostly referred to the area using the term preferred by Vietnamese, the East Sea. The Philippines, another claimant nation, calls the waters the West Philippine Sea.
Dempsey said that if the weapons ban is repealed, the United States should start by boosting Vietnam's navy. He noted that Vietnamese military officials haven't been specific enough as to what hardware they need, but said the two countries are discussing "patrol boats or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets," as well as "even potentially some weapons for their fleet that they currently don't have."
"There's a growing sense among our elected officials by our administration, by non-governmental organizations, that Vietnam has made progress against the limitations that led to the lethal weapon ban," Dempsey said, speaking at the American Center, a cultural and educational annex to the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
Jonathan London, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, had a mixed reaction to Dempsey's remarks.
"The lifting of the arms embargo could be welcome, perhaps, in that it allows Vietnam to be more capable in addressing its security needs," London said. But he worried that the feuding in the South China Sea "is leading to the militarization of the entire region, an arms race."
London also said the increased cooperation was part of a larger trend of improving ties between Vietnam and the United States. "Relations between the two countries have entered a new stage," he said.
Dempsey's visit is part of a military strategy to "rebalance" toward Asia, which some view as a check on Beijing's growing influence.
"When I have conversations with my Chinese counterparts about when they assert that we're trying to contain them or that we are rebalancing against them, it is not against them," Dempsey said.
Instead, he pointed out that Asia-Pacific is projected to number seven billion of the planet's nine billion by 2050. Washington is merely anticipating the fact that the region will take on greater importance in the coming decades, Dempsey said.
"The United States has correctly identified that in the future the demographic, economic, diplomatic and security issues of the day will be principally in this region of the world," he said.
Many Vietnamese, who are vigorously anti-China, seem to be embracing the U.S. rebalance. Readers of VnExpress, a popular news and entertainment website, covered its pages with notes of "welcome" and "thanks" to Dempsey. "I really like the American style. Straight-forward, expressing a clear perspective," one commenter wrote in response to a story about Dempsey's arrival. Another commented that Vietnam is "ready to work with the United States for our mutual benefit."
One of those mutual benefits could be peace. Because Dempsey expects that more of history will be written in Asia, he said it's essential to global security that the United States focuses its efforts here.
"I personally believe it would be our absence, not our presence, in this region that would be destabilizing," he said. "Because if we're absent and then something happens and we flow to it, it will be seen as provocative. Rather than accepting the fact that we all have interests in international space."