Gen. Martin Dempsey with a Vietnamese MiG fighter. / Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
DANANG, Vietnam - The Vietnamese military showed an unprecedented amount of leg here Thursday.
It sought to catch the eye of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first of his kind to visit the Communist country since its founding - and the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
From past-their-prime fighter jets and missile boats to spit-and-polish pilots and sailors from the People's Air Force and Navy, the Vietnamese put on a show. Dempsey seemed charmed.
"Forty-five years ago, I couldn't imagine we'd be sitting in this room, having this conversation," Dempsey told the Vietnamese Navy brass from Naval Zone 3.
No, in 1969, at the height of the war, the notion of U.S., Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military leaders posing for photos and exchanging gifts would have been considered absurd.
Though calling it a conversation might be overstating the stilted, translated, ceremonial chat, the talk and the talker intended to send a message. America, its top military officer said, is serious about shifting its focus and resources to the Pacific. His presence here alone, despite the latest fires in the Middle East, speaks louder than any prepared remarks he could deliver.
Dempsey, in meetings with academics, politicians and military officials here this week, stressed that Vietnam's strategic location between China to the north and bustling nations to the south, along with its long coastline with the South China Sea, makes it a central player in the region.
For their part, the Vietnamese were eager to show that they're up to the challenge.
First up was Vietnam Air Division 372. The grounds of its headquarters hold the inevitable spoils for the victors: 1960s U.S. warplanes, most likely captured when South Vietnam fell in 1975.
But on the flight line and in meeting rooms, it was all (or mostly all) smiles for the chairman. The Vietnamese showcased its hardware despite its age.
Young pilots stood by their 1960s-era MiG 21s, Russian-made fighter jets that bedeviled American fliers. The F-4's they flew had radar and missiles that allowed them to destroy the MiGs from distance.
But the Vietnamese pilots regularly popped up after the F-4's had flown past their bases, taking a heavy toll.
At Naval Zone 3's pier, Dempsey walked the gangway onto a patrol boat of the same vintage as the MiGs. It was unusual access to a Vietnamese naval ship for a high-ranking officer.
Vietnamese army minders popped up to point out what could (not much) and could not (most everything) be photographed. It's possible they, like militaries everywhere, are not eager to display capabilities or, more often, advertise vulnerabilities.
The ship in the adjacent slip appeared to have been painted recently, although not below the water line, suggesting that it may not have been thoroughly overhauled in some time. In any event, Vietnam would be hard-pressed to challenge the Chinese, who are increasingly asserting claims in the waters off Danang.
For now, Dempsey assured the Vietnamese sailors that the old enemies should nurture their new friendship carefully. He called for slow and steady progress.
"We won't rush each other," he said.
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