U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) is with Bui Anh Chung, Deputy Commander of Vietnam’s Air and Air Defense Force at Bien Hoa Airport on Wednesday. Photo by Phuoc Tuan
Mattis, accompanied by American military officials and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Kritenbrink, arrived at the airport in the southern Dong Nai Province at 8:30 a.m.
In what has been called a “rare” and “unusual” visit by international media including AP and Nikkei, Mattis spent around 10 minutes talking with Vietnamese military officials, led by Major General Bui Anh Chung, Deputy Commander of Vietnam’s Air and Air Defense Force.
With reporters kept at a distance, the military delegations talked and surveyed the airport map in a tent, steps away from a “Danger” sign along the ditch that runs around the airport.
The visit will hopefully earn Vietnam more support from the U.S. for dioxin clearance, officials said.
A Vietnam’s Defense Ministry statement cited Mattis as saying the result of the visit would be the foundation to report to the U.S. government and Congress, so that they can continue helping Vietnam dealing with war consequences.
After leaving the airport, Mattis met with Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly an hour.
Lich said at the meeting that solving wartime consequences would continue to be a main focus in Vietnam and U.S. relations, and Vietnam expects strong U.S. support in cleaning up Bien Hoa.
The campaign to decontaminate Bien Hoa is part of a bilateral cooperative effort that started in 2000 to resolve humanitarian and wartime legacies while continuing to strengthen economic, cultural and security ties.
It is the second time the U.S. will get directly involved in a dioxin cleanup effort in Vietnam, following a five-year, $110 million joint effort by the USAID and the defense ministry to clean dioxin-contaminated soil at the Da Nang International Airport that started in 2012.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R, second) studies the map of Bien Hoa Airport with Vietnamese and American military officials on Wednesday. Photo by Phuoc Tuan
Just 30 kilometers from Saigon, Bien Hoa, a major base for U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine units during the Vietnam War, is the largest remaining dioxin hotspot in Vietnam. Studies have found that more than 500,000 cubic meters of land at the airport, which Vietnam uses for military purposes, needs treating.
Officials from Office 33, the national agency tasked with handling the consequences of toxic chemicals used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, said at a meeting in 2012 that some spots at the airport had the highest levels of dioxin contamination in the world, at 1.18 million parts per trillion (ppt). Dioxin concentration at the air base ranges from 1,000ppt upwards, while 100ppt is considered high.
The Vietnamese government launched a VND270 billion ($11.88 million) program to facilitate a massive dioxin cleanup campaign at the airport in September 2016. The U.S. then announced its commitment to dioxin remediation efforts at the area in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s state visit to Vietnam last November.
Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange over 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of southern Vietnam.
Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical contained in the defoliant, stays in the soil and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food chain through meat, fish and other animals, and has been found at alarmingly high levels in human breast milk.
Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals before the war ended in April 1975. These chemicals have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases, according to Vietnam Red Cross.
On arriving in HCMC on Tuesday, Mattis met with the city’s Party Secretary Nguyen Thien Nhan. This is his second visit to Vietnam this year, following one to Hanoi in January, prompting several media outlets to call it “rare” and “unusual.”
A few days ago, Mattis had told USA Today that Vietnam “is a growing defense partner in a number of ways.”
His next stop is Singapore, where he will participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, scheduled for Thursday to Saturday.
Mattis had been scheduled to visit China as part of the trip, but that plan was changed as trade and defense disputes intensified between Washington and Beijing.
On September 30, a Chinese warship sailed within yards of an American destroyer, forcing it to change course in the South China Sea, which U.S. officials described as “unsafe, unprofessional” and “aggressive” maneuver.
Vietnam calls the waterway the East Sea.