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Rumsfeld Scouts for Friends in Vietnam

HOWARD BERKES, host:

Also today, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff pledged a thorough investigation into the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by Marines in the town of Haditha. General Peter Pace told the Associated Press the depth of the investigation is more important than its speed.

General Pace spoke from Singapore, where he and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attended a regional security conference. Secretary Rumsfeld then flew on to Vietnam.

NPR's John Hendren is traveling with him and joins me on the line.

John, so much has changed. What is the status of U.S.-Vietnam relations right now?

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Well, the big change started in 1995. That's when the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam. And then in 2001, the two countries normalized trade relations. Since then, the two countries have largely buried the hatchet.

Just last week, Vietnam and the United States signed a trade agreement, and the Bush administration is now helping Vietnam in its efforts to join the World Trade Organization. So now Rumsfeld plans to meet with the prime minister and the defense minister of Vietnam. This comes after the defense minister invited Rumsfeld to Hanoi when he made his own historic visit to Washington in 2003.

BERKES: So it seems the United States now sees some military importance, some strategic importance in its relationship with Vietnam?

HENDREN: That's right. And one main reason Vietnam is so important is that it's had a historic rivalry with China. And China's gained and lost control of Vietnam several times over the past 2000 years. The main reason the U.S. is looking for allies in Southeast Asia is that the Pentagon considers China one of the biggest long-term military threats to the United States. That was the conclusion of the Pentagon under Rumsfeld last year in a report to Congress called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

So the military is in the midst of moving some ships and other equipment from the East Coast to the Pacific, Guam and Hawaii, to position itself for any conflict with China, and no doubt having allies in the region helps.

BERKES: Well, what does the United States want from Vietnam in terms of security out of this, and what does Vietnam get out of it?

HENDREN: Well, the United States - what Vietnam gets out of this, first of all, is a better relationship with a major trading partner at a time when it's trying to improve its trading relationship with the rest of the world. It also gets kind of a buffer against China.

What the United States gets is a major ally in a region where it perceives this big threat. And Rumsfeld says he's not looking for access to military bases now. But he declined to say what the Pentagon's long-term hopes are for the relationship with Vietnam when he was asked today.

And it has been part of the Pentagon strategy in recent years to develop relationships with countries so it can use so-called expeditionary bases on their soil. These are bases the U.S. occupies temporarily, but it doesn't actually own. And that's different from the traditional set-up where we've got permanent bases in places like Germany and Italy.

BERKES: NPR's John Hendren is traveling with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. He joined us from Hanoi. Thank you.

HENDREN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.