US warship visits former foe Vietnam, China warns US to stay out of Yellow Sea

Published August 10, 2010

| Associated Press

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — An American warship docked Tuesday in central Vietnam where the former foes planned to conduct naval training in a sign of growing military ties amid new warnings from China for the U.S. to stay out of its backyard.

The USS John S. McCain's port call comes as the U.S. and Vietnam celebrate 15 years of normalized diplomatic relations following a bloody war that remains an open wound for many veterans. The two governments, while ideologically different, have embraced on a number of issues, including a recent stance against China's territorial claims over the South China Sea.

China on Tuesday told the U.S. and South Korean navies to keep out of the Yellow Sea, where it claims exclusivity.

The allies have planned another round of joint military war games following last month's drills in the Sea of Japan, which China also criticized.

The brief Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Beijing had repeatedly "expressed our clear and firm position" on any maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, a move that would theoretically put Beijing within range of the ship's F-18 warplanes.

"We urge the relevant parties to take China's position and concern seriously," the statement said.

On Sunday, the U.S. Navy hosted a delegation of Vietnamese military and government officials on the USS George Washington, a hulking nuclear-powered aircraft supercarrier cruising in waters off Vietnam's central coast. Chinese military ships were seen shadowing the carrier in the distance.

"These waters belong to nobody, yet belong to everybody," Capt. David Lausman, commanding officer of the George Washington, said Sunday aboard the mammoth carrier that can carry up to 70 aircraft, more than 5,000 sailors and aviators and about 4 million pounds (1.8 million kilograms) of bombs. "China has a right to operate here, as do we and as do every other country of the world."

The U.S. has ratcheted up its military presence in the region in recent weeks, conducting large-scale joint military exercises with ally South Korea last month as a show of solidarity following the sinking of a South Korean navy warship in March that killed 46 sailors. North Korea was blamed for torpedoing the Cheonan, but it has denied any involvement and has repeatedly threatened war if punished.

On Monday, the North fired off a barrage of about 110 artillery rounds into the ocean near its disputed western sea border with South Korea. The display caused no damage, but prompted terse warnings of retaliation from South Korea. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley joked that Pyongyang likely caused "a lot of dead fish," and said it wasn't clear what the reclusive government was trying to achieve with its "ongoing chest-thumping."

China criticized the U.S.-South Korean drills and later held its own exercises in the South China Sea, which it claims entirely along with the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands over which it exercises complete sovereignty.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also have staked claims on all or some of the territory, which straddles vital shipping lanes, important fishing grounds and is believed rich in oil and natural gas reserves.

Last month during an Asian security meeting in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton angered China by asserting that it was in the U.S. national interest for the communist giant to resolve the territorial claims with its neighbors.

Vietnam has been particularly vocal about the South China Sea. The communist country has grown increasingly closer to the United States, from trade and commerce to negotiating a controversial deal to share civilian nuclear fuel and technology that could allow Vietnam to enrich uranium on its own soil.

The USS John S. McCain's weeklong visit will involve search and rescue trainings along with cultural exchanges between the two navies. The guided-missile destroyer docked Tuesday in central Danang, once the site of a bustling U.S. military base during the Vietnam War, which ended April 30, 1975, when northern communist forces seized control of the U.S.-backed capital of South Vietnam, reuniting the country.

Some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the war.

Relations have thrived since the former foes shook hands in 1995. The U.S. is Vietnam's top export market and Americans were the country's No. 1 foreign investor last year. Two-way trade reached $15.4 billion in 2009.

Military ties have also grown since the first U.S. warship ship visited Ho Chi Minh City in 2003, including high-level defense talks and training.

In a statement from Washington, Sen. John McCain — for whose Navy veteran grandfather and father the American warship is named — said that Vietnam has become one of America's "most important and most promising partners in the Asia-Pacific region."

"In time, I am confident that, together, our two countries will add to the security, the prosperity, and one day, I hope, to the freedom of all countries and peoples in the Asia-Pacific," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report from Beijing.

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