Bayard & Holmes
~ Jay Holmes
Due to Communist China’s aggression in the South China Sea, or as the Vietnamese call it, the Eastern Sea, the US has become interested in building a closer relationship with Vietnam. Despite strong emotions on both sides, the changing relationship with Vietnam is less complicated and less subtle than the relationships that the US has with other South Pacific nations. However, it is not without obstacles.
US Pres. Obama & Vietnam Pres. Tran Dai Quang
Presidential Palace, May 23, 2016
Image public domain.
Understanding the forces that drive the US/Vietnam relationship is easy if we consider a few key events since the end of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.
From the point of view of many US citizens, building a working relationship with the communist Vietnamese government is something new and innovative. From Hanoi’s point of view, it is something natural that should have happened a long time ago.
It might surprise many Western Cold War survivors to know that Hanoi fully expected to quickly normalize relations with the US once it was able to capture and control South Vietnam. US President Richard Nixon had ordered an increased bombing campaign against North Vietnam to force Hanoi to return to the Paris Peace Talks. Both the North Vietnamese government and the US government understood that those peace talks were pure theater and without any potential lasting value, but Nixon felt he needed to create the appearance of a peaceful settlement to the conflict. All Nixon really wanted was for the US to pull out of South Vietnam.
When President Nixon told the South Vietnamese government that the US military would return if North Vietnam broke the peace treaty, he knew that he was lying. The South Vietnamese government knew it, as well, but there was nothing it could do about it. Years of blatant corruption and criminality in the South Vietnamese government, combined with the thousands of deaths of young Americans, had left much of the American public unwilling to continue to support South Vietnam. Nixon fully understood that the US public was done with Vietnam.
Westerners understood that Nixon was clearly using a “big stick” approach against the North Vietnamese government in order to force them back to the transparently farcical Paris Peace Talks, but most were unaware that Nixon and his soon-to-be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were also quietly holding out a large carrot to the North Vietnamese government. That carrot was a normalization of relations with the US, trade agreements, and US influence to allow North Vietnam access to the International Monetary Fund.
The North Vietnamese government carefully considered the offers from Nixon, and after about two minutes fully agreed. What could be more splendid than the US showering North Vietnam with cash instead of bombs? In response to Nixon’s offers, Hanoi suggested that the US quickly develop offshore oil reserves in Vietnamese territory with a perfectly reasonable revenue sharing formula. The communists in Hanoi were clearly in love with capitalism.
Hanoi wanted to become something like a new Saudi Arabia.
The automobile-addicted Yankees would get more oil, and Vietnam would get cash. And here is the subtle little detail that mattered most in all this. Hanoi expected its “capitalist Yankee dog” enemies to become Vietnam’s beloved allies against Vietnam’s problematic neighbor, the People’s Republic of China.
It might be difficult for Americans that remember the Vietnam War to believe that the Hanoi government would have been capable of an alliance with the US after the Vietnam War.
If we consider the North Vietnamese view for a moment, it’s a little easier to understand how they might have hoped for our bombing campaigns to be converted to cash-dropping operations. From Hanoi’s perspective, the US had spent more than a decade lavishing cash, equipment, and young American blood on a wildly corrupt South Vietnamese government in exchange for nothing.
So why then would the Yankees not do the same for a wildly corrupt communist Vietnam in exchange for oil rights?
It made perfect sense to the pragmatic Kissinger, the impatient Nixon, and to everyone else involved in the Vietnam quagmire. It would have worked except for another critical event. To the surprise of no sober adult in Vietnam or the US, the North Vietnamese could not resist invading and conquering South Vietnam after the US military went home. They miscalculated. Oil or not, the US was not going to become close friends with Hanoi once Hanoi so completely violated the Paris Peace Treaty.
So, all “that” explains why communist Vietnam would pretend to be our friend now. Now let us consider why the US government might be willing to pretend it believes that the Vietnamese are our friends.
The answer is simple enough to express in one word – China.
It is easy for the Vietnamese communists to abandon their own dogma and do business with their old “Imperialist Yankee dog” enemies in the face of the more avaricious Communist Chinese imperial aggression. In the face of that same Chinese Imperialist campaign in the Pacific, the US government is willing to cooperate and even aid its old “communist terrorist” enemies.
Vietnam understands that the USA does not wish to install a “Pax Americana” in the South Pacific. It understood that we weren’t even willing to install a “Pax Americana” in South Vietnam, and it counted on that fact in its strategy in the 1960s and 1970s. For other South Pacific nations, an escalated conflict with China is future possibility to be avoided. For the Vietnamese, it is a reality that they have experienced many times over, and as recently as 1979, when China again invaded Vietnam. For the Obama administration, convincing the Vietnamese to take the Chinese Imperialist agenda seriously is about as difficult as convincing a teenager that sex is good.
Changes in the US-Vietnam relationship can be measured by key steps the two countries have taken.
On January 13, 1993, the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave a favorable final report that cleared the way for the Clinton Administration to resume IMF and World Bank lending to Vietnam. For Americans such as me, who were still waiting for a loved one to return from Vietnam, the fact that Vietnam had conducted a visible long-term effort to account for all US MIAs in Southeast Asia mattered a great deal. For the Vietnamese, access to the IMF and World Bank mattered a great deal financially.
On February 3, 1994, US President Bill Clinton partially lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was a boon for the Vietnamese economy and provided US corporations with an alternative to cheap Chinese manufacturing labor.
On July 11, 1995, US President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
In November 2003, the USS Vandergrift became the first US Navy vessel to make port call in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. This initiated a regular schedule of US Navy calls at Vietnamese ports.
The US Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations for Vietnam in January 2007. This further boosted US Capital investment in Vietnam.
In early October 2014, the United States approved a relaxation of its arms embargo on Vietnam.
In May 2016, President Obama announced the full lifting of the embargo during his visit to Vietnam.
Thus far, there has been little practical impact from lifting the embargo because Vietnam prefers to purchase less expensive weapons and systems from their Russian allies. However, one sign that that the trade agreement might benefit the US economy is the $11.3 billion pending Vietnamese agreement with Boeing for the purchase of 100 airliners. It is not clear to me where the cash will come from to make this deal a reality, but time will tell. There is also optimistic chatter about Vietnam purchasing P-3 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance planes, but I can’t see Congress and the DoD signing off on the sale of such high tech military systems to a close ally of Russia.
Many human rights groups feel betrayed by the Obama administration.
Critics of the lifting of the embargo feel that Obama could easily have demanded human rights reforms in Vietnam in exchange for such a lucrative agreement for Vietnam. Vietnam has clearly demonstrated that it is in no rush to improve human rights for their citizens. From a political point of view, Vietnam remains very similar to Communist China. The one difference is that Vietnam is reliably anti-Chinese, and, therefore, this administration and previous administrations have been willing to ignore Vietnam’s transparently horrible human rights record.
It’s tough to not see the parallel between current US Pacific strategy and the US strategy in Central America during the Cold War.
Then, as now, we have often been willing to tolerate wildly corrupt governments when they have opposed major enemies of the US. The philosophical and moral questions surrounding the current US administration’s willingness to do business with a despotic Vietnamese government are beyond the scope of this article and this series of articles. In the European tradition of “Realpolitik” and in step with the worldwide practice of self-interested political policies, the US has chosen to strengthen ties with Vietnam.
In my estimation, the relationship between the US and Vietnam will continue to grow. The next US presidential election will not likely disrupt this trend, regardless of which candidate wins.
In our next article, we will consider the relationship between the US and India, and India’s huge potential influence on South Pacific affairs.