|U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks with Vietnamese Chief of Defense Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, Vietnam, Aug. 14, 2014. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen.|
Washington August 16, 2014 - If the United States lifts the embargo against the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey would recommend providing materials for the Peoples' Navy, he said during a news conference in Ho Chi Minh City today.
In the first trip by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Vietnam since 1971, Dempsey visited Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.
Forty-five years ago, the United States was in a conflict with North Vietnam, and Dempsey was a cadet at West Point preparing to join that war. "The challenge now is to think 45 years ahead," the highest-ranking U.S. military official said.
By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on Earth -- 7 billion of whom will live in the Indo-Pacific. "Where the people are is where the issues are," the chairman said.
Vietnamese reporters questioned Dempsey on China's territorial claims in the East China Sea. "We've been very clear that we don't take sides in the territorial disputes, but we do care very much how they are resolved," he said. "They should not be resolved through use of force."
The United States has longstanding defense agreements with nations in the region -- Thailand and the Philippines are treaty allies. "We are interested in becoming a partner with a strong and independent and prosperous Vietnam," the chairman said.
Still, at its core the solution to the East China Sea issue hinges more on stronger multinational response brokered through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations rather than a question of "'What does the United States intend to do about it?'," he said.
The United States and Vietnam have common interests. "We're encouraging many of our ASEAN partners and friends to take a multinational approach to maritime security and maritime domain awareness," he said.
Building capabilities for maritime domain awareness is important to any effort in the region, Dempsey said, including patrol boats, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and search and rescue equipment.
"Our advice is that we look at this regionally, not country-by-country," the chairman said. "We're working our way forward in that spirit."
There is a growing sense among U.S. elected officials and non-governmental organizations that Vietnam has made progress on the human rights issues that initially led to the embargo being put in place more than three decades ago.
"I think in the near term there will be a discussion on how to lift it," Dempsey said. "My military advice ... will be if it is lifted that we begin with assets that would make the Peoples' Navy more capable in the maritime domain. That would generate a conversation on what that means, but I think the maritime domain is the place of our greatest common security interest right now."
This could include intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets and even some weapons they don't yet have for their fleet, the chairman said.
Vietnam is uniquely and importantly positioned as the 13th largest economy in the world, he said. While it is located in Southeast Asia, the nation is the springboard into the Indo-Pacific region.
"I do see Vietnam occupying a key geostrategic region," Dempsey said. "In terms of managing its maritime resources and managing the territorial disputes -- I'd suggest as goes Vietnam, I think as goes the South China Sea."