The USS Carl Vinson arrived in Danang, Vietnam, on Monday for the first port visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the country since the end of the Vietnam War than 40 years ago.
The visit, which is being billed by U.S. officials as a historic chance to build relationships with the Vietnamese, is being interpreted as a message to Beijing as the U.S. seeks to bulk up its presence and influence in the South China Sea.
“The visit marks an enormously significant milestone in our bilateral relations and demonstrates U.S. support for a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam,” U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink said in a statement Monday. “Through hard work, mutual respect and by continuing to address the past while we work toward a better future, we have gone from former enemies to close partners.”
Danang is the city where 3,500 Marines landed in March 1965 as the first American ground troops in the Vietnam War.
In recent years, the United States and Vietnam have worked to improve relations that were normalized in 1995. In 2016, former President Obama lifted a decades-old ban on military equipment sales to Vietnam and last year, the two countries signed a three-year plan for defense cooperation.
The Vinson arrived with two escort ships, cruiser USS Lake Champlain and destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer. The strike group has a total crew of 6,000 sailors, 5,000 of which are on the Vinson.
U.S. sailors are scheduled to visit a treatment center for victims of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant the United States used during the war.
During the visit, U.S. sailors will also participate in cultural and professional exchanges, including community service projects, sports competitions and receptions, according to a Navy news release. Navy musicians from the U.S. 7th Fleet Band will also perform free concerts for the public.
“This is a historic day and we are honored to receive such a warm welcome here,” Rear Adm. John Fuller, the strike group commander, said in a statement. “Also, we’d like to thank Vietnam for the excellent logistical support that makes this visit possible. The United States and Vietnam are cooperating closely than ever before.”
Vietnam and China have competing claims in the South China Sea, which has been of increasing concern to Hanoi.
China claims much of the strategic waterway, through which roughly $5 trillion in trade passes annually, and has built up artificial islands despite a ruling in the Hague against China’s claims. Vietnam claims some islands in the sea’s Spratly and Paracel chains.
The United States officially does not take a position on the claims but has accused China of militarizing the waterway in its island building. The U.S. has also said the passage must remain open to maritime traffic and has conducted several so-called freedom of navigation exercises aimed at ensuring it is.