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Rumsfeld visits Vietnam amid warming signs


HANOI, Vietnam -- Four decades after first visiting as a young congressman at the height of a divisive war, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld toured Vietnam yesterday amid increasingly warming relations between the one-time enemies and made unexpected progress toward improving military relations.

U.S. officials had been cautious to lower expectations ahead of Rumsfeld's visit here, particularly given Vietnam's occasionally tense relations with its northern neighbor China. But after meetings with Defense Ministry officials and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, Pentagon officials emerged upbeat, saying Hanoi appeared eager to deepen defense cooperation, despite the possibility of antagonizing Beijing.

"Both sides agreed we wanted to expand things," said one Pentagon official involved in the talks.

Eleven years after the U.S. and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations, bilateral defense cooperation remains limited. For example, a U.S. Navy destroyer is scheduled to arrive in Vietnam next month, the fourth U.S. ship to make a port call in four years, and two Vietnamese officers will arrive in Texas this month for English-language training.

As a result, the moves agreed on by the two sides during Rumsfeld's current visit were small steps. But the secretary characterized them as important steps, particularly alongside a recently signed bilateral trade deal and progress toward Vietnam's membership in the World Trade Organization.

"It ought not be surprising ... that the U.S. is developing a very good relationship with Vietnam, just as it ought not to have been surprising that we did so with countries that were on the other side in previous conflicts," Rumsfeld said.

He pointed out that during Khai's visit to Washington last year, President Bush expressed hope that relations between their countries would raise to a higher level. "Certainly, that has happened," Rumsfeld said.

Bush will travel to Hanoi this year to attend an economic conference of Pacific Rim nations.

Among the moves agreed to during Rumsfeld's visit was an expansion of U.S. military training of Vietnamese forces beyond the current English-language courses, which probably will include combat medical training and an increase in the number of trips by Vietnamese officers to bases in the United States.

"They agreed we should increase the level of exchanges at all levels of the military," Rumsfeld said.

The gradual embrace of Hanoi has come along with similar Bush administration efforts to strengthen ties with several of China's neighbors, including Mongolia and India. Rumsfeld discussed China's increased military spending in a meeting with Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday at a gathering of Asian defense ministers in Singapore, but said the topic did not come up with Vietnamese officials during his discussions in Hanoi.

The warming in relations has not gone over well with some congressional Republicans, who have argued that Hanoi's record on human rights and religious freedoms should prevent the U.S. from embracing the Communist regime.

A Pentagon official traveling with Rumsfeld said the topic of human rights was raised in discussions with Defense Minister Pham Van Tra, adding that military training of Vietnam forces was still bounded by congressional restraints.

"They're happy to have a dialogue with us" on human rights, the official said after the meeting with Tra.

Rumsfeld said the two sides also reached agreement on increased help from Hanoi on tracking down the more than 1,370 U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action in the country three decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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