The U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter discussed his call for an end to island-building in the South China Sea during talks on Monday with his Vietnamese counterpart, who told a news conference Vietnam had not been expanding its islands. The increasing military cooperation with Asia proves that the U.S. will play a much more assertive role in Asian countries.
"We will continue to do what we have done for seven decades since World War Two ended - by being the pivotal military power in the region, which we are and will continue to be," the Defense Secretary told the BBC during his visit to Vietnam. "Nothing will stop U.S. military operations at all," said Carter. "We will fly, we will sail, we will operate here in the Pacific as we always have."
Defense Secretary Carter and minister Phung Quang Thanh also signed a Joint Vision Statement to guide future military cooperation between the two former foes, who fought a 1955-1975 war and only normalized relations 20 years ago.
As part of the expanding cooperation, Carter announced the U.S. would help Vietnam establish a site to train its troops to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations, and would send a U.S. expert on peacekeeping to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. On Sunday, Carter visited the Vietnamese navy headquarters and coast guard headquarters and pledged $18 million to help Vietnam buy U.S. patrol boats.
Carter, who is on his second visit to Asia since becoming defense secretary earlier this year, has been urging countries in the region to stop their island-building efforts in the disputed, resource-rich regions of the South China Sea.
He reiterated that call at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on Saturday, and discussed it with Thanh during their meetings on Monday.
Carter told the Shangri-La summit that China was threatening security in the region with its maritime construction, but acknowledged that other claimant countries to the disputed sea were also at fault.
"Vietnam has recently conducted consolidation on the islands under Vietnam's sovereignty," Thanh told reporters later, noting that Vietnamese troops were stationed on nine "floating islands" and 12 "submerged islands" in the region.
"On the floating islands, we conducted embankment (consolidation) to prevent them from waves and erosion, to ensure safety for the people and the soldiers stationed on the islands," he said.
"On the submerged islands, we only built small houses, which can accommodate a few people and we are not expanding. The scope and characteristic of our work is purely civilian."
Submerged islands feature underwater reefs, while floating islands are those with surfaces above the water surface, or which can be built from submerged islands by adding steel structure, soil, rocks and concrete.
Meanwhile, speaking during a news conference after the meeting with Carter, Thanh said through an interpreter that the full removal of the weapons sales restrictions would be "in line with the interests of both countries. And I think we should not attach that decision to the human rights issue." And he offered a broad defense of the government, saying it respects the rights and freedoms of the people. Last October, the U.S. partially lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, allowing only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities. To date, no weapons have flowed to Vietnam.
Carter also said that the U.S. will provide $18 million to Vietnam to buy vessels for the coast guard, and the two men signed a joint statement calling for expanded cooperation between the two militaries.
For the last several years, the administration and the Pentagon have been focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region, in what's been called a strategic pivot after more than a decade of war and intense focus on the Middle East. The U.S. insists the rebalance is not aimed at China and its growing military, but the U.S. has worked to expand and solidify relations with nations across the region, including many who have been at odds with China's moves to exert its sovereignty in the South China Sea, which the U.S. and others consider international waters.
Beijing has also bristled as America has moved more ships and other assets to the region, expanded military exercises and rotated troops more frequently in and out of other Pacific nations.