US likely to send 1st aircraft carrier since war to Vietnam

US likely to send 1st aircraft carrier since war to Vietnam
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, shakes hands with his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich, right, before reviewing and honor guard in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Mattis is on a two-day visit to Vietnam to boost military ties between the two countries. (AP Photo/Tran Van Minh)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — In a move likely to irritate China, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is likely to visit Vietnam in March for the first time since the war, U.S. and Vietnamese officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his counterpart discussed a plan for a carrier visit to Danang in March, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said.

He said the Vietnamese are awaiting final approval by more senior government authorities but David said the U.S. expects the approval to be granted.

The Vietnamese Defense Ministry said separately that the two defense ministries had submitted their proposals for a port visit to their leaders. The idea was floated last summer when Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met Mattis at the Pentagon.

The two met again in Hanoi on Thursday during Mattis’ first trip to the Southeast Asian nation, which also included a meeting with President Tran Dai Quang.

“From post-war legacy issues to what Minister Lich called the positive trajectory of our military-to-military relations, I’m confident we’re on the right trajectory, sir,” Mattis said in his opening remarks at the presidential palace, where he and the president sat side-by-side beneath a large bust of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

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 decade-long 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.