Vietnamese security and government officials were flown on to the nuclear-powered USS George Washington, underlining the burgeoning military relationship between the former enemies. A number of journalists were also invited to witness the display of maritime might in the oil-rich waters, which are home to islands disputed between China and the other smaller Asian nations facing the sea.
The visit is likely to reassure Vietnam and the Philippines of American support but could annoy China, whose growing economic and naval strength is leading to a greater assertiveness in pressing its claims there.
The United States is building closer economic and military alliances with Vietnam and other nations in the region as part of a pivot away from the Middle East to Asia, a shift in large part meant to counter rising Chinese influence.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, where the US says it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in an area crossed by vital shipping lanes. Vietnam, the Philippines and several other Asian nations also claim parts of the sea. The disputes attracted little international interest until the late 1990s, when surveys indicated possible large oil reserves. American rivalry with China has given the disputes an extra dimension in recent years.
The trip by the George Washington off the coast of Vietnam is its third in as many years. A second aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, has also conducting operations in the western Pacific region recently, according to the US Pacific Fleet.
Capt. Gregory Fenton said the mission was aimed in part at improving relations with Vietnam and ensuring the US had free passage in the South China Sea.
China’s military build-up, including the launch of its own carrier last year and rapid development of ballistic missiles and cyber warfare capabilities, could potentially crimp the US forces’ freedom to operate in the waters. The United States doesn’t publicly take sides in the territorial disputes among China and its neighbours