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US Pacific Commander Visits Vietnam

The commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific says he wants to expand his understanding of the situation in Vietnam, and to get to know the country's new leaders, during a visit that started today. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Hanoi.

Admiral William Fallon says the United States has several goals, as it tries to develop military relations with Vietnam. One is related to the top American priority, worldwide -- fighting terrorism.

"The more security and the more stability that we have, the less opportunity for the bad actors to take over and, as the terrorists are wont to do, thrive in those places where there is insecurity."

Admiral Fallon is following up on a visit to Vietnam, several weeks ago, by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. During that visit, the secretary and his Vietnamese counterpart agreed to expand military relations. As a result of that agreement, two Vietnamese officers are studying English in the United States. For that to happen, the two countries had to sign a cooperation agreement, American officials hope a further agreement can be signed to facilitate additional military contacts like the port visit by two U.S. navy ships in Vietnam earlier this month -- the fourth such visit in as many years.

The two countries also have an annual defense dialogue among mid-level officers, which will have its third session later this year.

Officials note that even the limited military contact with Vietnam has resulted in some real benefits, including quick approval by Hanoi for U.S. military aircraft to fly over Vietnam, last year, as they delivered relief supplies to tsunami victims.

But Admiral Fallon says there does not seem to be much interest in Vietnam in expanding such contacts and he has no particular list of suggestions to present during his meetings here. He also says his visit and the American desire to expand military exchanges, has another motivation.

"We would hope that, by continuing to expand economic opportunities and look(ing) to expand other relationships between the countries, that we would encourage the kinds of things that would result in more and more personal freedoms and systems that are much more compatible with those that we enjoy in our country."

Admiral Fallon will be the first senior U.S. official to meet some of Vietnam's new leaders. The national assembly installed the new president and prime minister, late last month. They built their reputations on supporting pragmatic economic policies and fighting corruption.

The admiral recognizes that -- although economic and diplomatic contacts between the United States and Vietnam have developed relatively well since relations were restored 15 years ago -- there is a reason military relations continue to lag behind.

"There is a history here, certainly very well known to me, as I was here 35 years ago in the middle of the Vietnam War. And, I would like to see personally how that's changed."

The admiral was a fighter pilot during the war and this is his first visit back to the country since then.