WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Vietnamese officer who became a war hero fighting U.S. forces in the 1960s and 1970s made a rare address to a U.S. military audience in Washington on Thursday, tip-toeing around the conflict with measured words of advice to Americans.
Lieutenant General Vo Tien Trung, the commandant of Vietnam's National Defense Academy, gave a detailed speech on the history of Vietnamese warfare dating back more than 2,000 years and fielded questions from the audience at the U.S. National War College.
The event was billed as the first address by a senior Vietnamese officer in a U.S. public forum to discuss Vietnam's military.
Trung's hour-long speech was largely a deep dive into Vietnam's history of battles against ancient Chinese forces. Trung said he did not want to waste the audience's time by going over the history of the Vietnam War for those who undoubtedly knew all about it.
But he touched on the war with the United States several times in the question-and-answer session.
"You call it Vietnam War. We call it American War," said Trung, a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Central Committee, to laughs from the audience of U.S. military officers and civilians.
At one point, a member of the audience asked for Trung's assessment, as someone who fought the United States, of "strengths and weaknesses of the American military" during the Vietnam War.
Trung at first suggested the conversation move beyond the conflict. But he then offered a recommendation to his American audience, consumed for the past decade with the land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"My message to Americans, despite a very powerful army, it is not legitimate if you wage a war against another country by invasion. That's my message," he said.
Ties between the United States and Vietnam have grown at breakneck speed in the 16 years since diplomatic relations were normalized and the 36 years since the Vietnam War ended.
Trade between the two countries has risen from almost nothing in the mid-1990s to $18 billion a year, most in the form of exports to the United States, which help keep Vietnam's trade deficit in check.
Military ties are also improving and U.S. Navy ships visit the former foe at least annually.
Sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea have emerged as a key point of convergence as Hanoi, Washington and others seek to counterbalance China's growing military might and assertive behavior in the region.
Trung predicted the dispute with China would not result in armed conflict, telling reporters it would be settled peacefully -- even if it took generations.
"We will solve it gradually," Trung said. "If we can't solve the problem, our children or grandchildren will solve the problem."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Mohammad Zargham)