Gen. Martin Dempsey, right, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is greeted Aug. 14 by Gen. Do Ba Ty, deputy defense minister and chief of general staff of the Vietnam People's Army, at the Defense Ministry in Hanoi. (Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP)
HANOI — The most senior US military officer to visit Vietnam for decades held talks with Communist Party officials in Hanoi on Thursday, in the latest boost to ties between the former wartime foes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with top Vietnamese military officials including Minister of Defence Phung Quang Thanh, and was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung later Thursday.
Before going into the closed-door meeting Dempsey told reporters that his visit was the “highlight” of his military career.
According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence, the visit is the first by a US Joint Chiefs of Staff and aims to “promote friendly bilateral relations” between the two countries, who fought a bitter decade-long war which ended with Vietnam’s reunification in 1975.
Talks will focus on boosting military cooperation with a focus on maritime security, search and rescue, and overcoming the consequences of war, the ministry said in a statement.
Hanoi is currently locked in a bitter maritime dispute with Beijing over disputed waters and island chains in the South China Sea.
Trade has flourished between the US and Vietnam since the countries normalized ties in 1995.
But military cooperation is limited due to a US ban on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam, although the US has indicated it may consider easing this as the communist country has made some progress on human rights issues.
Dempsey is also expected to travel to central Danang, once home to a key US military base during the war, where the US has launched an effort to clean up dioxins from the site.
The Americans sprayed defoliants such as Agent Orange over vast swathes of jungle in South Vietnam during the war in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong communist guerrillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.
Hanoi says up to three million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, and that one million suffer grave health repercussions today.
An attempt by Vietnamese victims to obtain compensation from the United States had little success.
American veterans have received billions of dollars for diseases linked to Agent Orange but neither the US government nor the chemical manufacturers ever admitted liability.