HANOI, Vietnam, Oct. 10, 2010 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to meet individually with Vietnamese leaders and some of his counterparts in the region and to participate in the first “plus” conference of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
During his visit, Gates also will speak at Vietnam National University.
Vietnamese Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Phung Quang Thanh invited Gates to the inaugural ASEAN Plus conference in June while both were attending the annual “Shangri-La Dialogue” regional security conference in Singapore.
Gates will have bilateral meetings tomorrow with his counterparts from Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines and China. He’ll also meet informally with Australian Defense Minister Stephen F. Smith.
The meeting with Gen. Liang Guanglie – one of three Gates counterparts in the Chinese military structure — marks a breakthrough in the military-to-military relationship between the two powers, which China put on hold early this year over U.S. military sales to Taiwan and other issues.
“We look forward to what we hope will be a very constructive discussion that will help us to move forward as we work to re-establish a stable and reliable military-to-military relationship between the United States and China,” a senior defense official told reporters traveling with Gates.
Gates has said on numerous occasions that such a relationship and an ongoing military security dialogue are in both countries’ best interests, the official added.
The secretary’s meeting with Thanh and a subsequent meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, another senior defense official said, will underscore the long-term U.S. commitment to a strong bilateral relationship with Vietnam, which he called “a very important country in the region.”
“We hope that we will be able to advance our defense ties with Vietnam, and we hope to establish a broader set of more practical cooperation activities with the Vietnamese military and defense establishment,” he said.
This will be the fourth meeting between Gates and Thanh over the last year and a half, the official noted, a period he said has been marked by considerable progress.
“This visit coming during the year of the 15th anniversary of normalization of relations [between the United States and Vietnam] is especially important,” he said, “and also coming after the first-ever bilateral policy dialogue with the Vietnamese – where we talked about a range of global, regional and bilateral security issues – really does elevate the relationship to a new level in our bilateral ties.”
The discussion between Gates and Thanh is expected to touch on continuing dialogues and building cooperation in such areas as peacekeeping, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the official said.
Gates’ meeting with Philippine Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin, the official said, will be a chance to discuss the two nations’ longstanding alliance and ways to continue and expand cooperation. Topics also may include terrorism in the southern Philippines, defense reform, maritime security and other regional security issues, he added.
The informal meeting with Smith – who had been Australia’s foreign minister when the two men last met and has been on the job as defense minister for about two months – will give Gates a brief opportunity to touch base on important issues affecting the two nations, the official said.
“Obviously, Australia has a large commitment to Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the two defense leaders probably also will discuss details of upcoming ministerial meetings in Australia.
Noting the “strength and vitality” of the alliance between the United States and Japan, a senior official said the bilateral meeting between Gates and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa will reflect Japan’s role as a cornerstone of U.S. security policy in the region as the defense leaders discuss areas of mutual interest, including North Korea’s effect on regional security.
Gates has made a point, both publicly and privately, of characterizing the inaugural ASEAN Plus conference as “an incredibly valuable forum,” and has been looking forward to attending, the official told reporters. ASEAN’s defense ministers decided last year to involve their counterparts from other key nations in “a broader regional dialogue to build patterns of cooperation, mutual trust and respect, and really get to some concrete cooperative activities building everybody’s ability to deal with regional security issues,” he said.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of good discussion on the range of regional security issues, broaden communication among all of these key nations, and try to figure out how we can build multilateral capacity to address some of these big challenges,” he added.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)