Mattis cozying up to Vietnam amid China's assertiveness

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is cozying up to senior Vietnamese officials, hoping to strengthen an Asian partnership in the face of China's more aggressive military stance.

Mattis met with Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich on Thursday after reviewing a military honor guard.

Mattis said he enjoyed seeing Hanoi.

"It's been a reminder of the vibrant people here in Vietnam," Mattis said. "And it's a reminder of how much our countries share."

No mention was made of the decade-long Vietnam War that ended in U.S. defeat in 1975. Washington and Hanoi have gradually drawn closer, putting war recriminations behind.

The Pentagon announced last summer, after Lich met with Mattis at the Pentagon, that the two countries were aiming toward a U.S. carrier visit to Vietnam, although the exact timing has not been worked out.

Earlier Thursday, Mattis broke from his usual pattern of official business meetings to pay his respects at one of Vietnam's oldest pagodas, where he spoke at length with a senior monk and remarked on the serene setting. The Tran Quoc Buddhist pagoda stands on a small island at the edge of a lake in Hanoi, a short distance from a concrete marker noting where Sen. John McCain was shot down during a Navy attack mission over the city in 1967. McCain was retrieved from the lake and imprisoned at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."

As he strolled among tourists at the 6th century pagoda, Mattis said to the monk, "Beautiful. Peaceful. It makes you think more deeply."

It was Mattis' first visit to Vietnam. He joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1969, while the war was ongoing, but he did not serve in Vietnam.

His visit happened to come just days before the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year.

Next week will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, in January 1968, when the Communist North launched synchronized, simultaneous attacks on multiple targets in U.S.-backed South Vietnam, including the city of Hue. The offensive was a military failure, but it turned out to be a pivot point in the war by puncturing U.S. hopes of a swift victory. The war dragged on for another seven years before the U.S. completed its withdrawal.

Mattis noted earlier this week that Vietnam's proximity to the South China Sea makes the country a key player in disputes with China over territorial claims to islets, shoals and other small land formations in the sea. Vietnam also fought a border war with China in 1979.