Reconciliation sends message to Beijing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2011, 12:00am

When the Vietnamese ambassador to the US, Le Cong Phung, flew to Hawaii earlier this month to confer with the commander of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, he carried a succinct message: 'Beware of China.'

In more diplomatic language, said US and Vietnamese officials, the ambassador asserted: 'Vietnam and the US should work together to counter China's territorial claims and attempts to hamper free navigation in the South China Sea.'

Willard, whose Pacific Command is charged with military relations with China - and deterring Chinese aggression if those relations turn sour - was said to be receptive.

The US and Vietnam have been gradually forging a reconciliation that can only be called remarkable, given the long war they fought from 1955 to 1975.

Phung reflected Hanoi's point of view and the long memories of the Vietnamese. Feudal China occupied large parts of Vietnam for a thousand years; more recently, China attacked Vietnam in 1979 and fought skirmishes after that.

For the United States, China's belligerence has been intensifying. Beijing seems bent on driving US forces and influence out of Asia. US commanders have quietly but repeatedly cautioned the Chinese not to miscalculate, as the US intends to remain a Pacific power.

To underscore the emerging security relations between the US and Vietnam, the 13th Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii plans to deploy frontline engineers to Vietnam this summer to work with the Vietnamese on refurbishing schools and hospitals.

US officials said the plan for the air force and other American services was to establish working relations with Vietnamese non-combat units, then move incrementally into training exercises for combat forces. Eventually, US forces would like to gain access to air bases in Vietnam.

In a breakthrough, Vietnam has announced that its port at Cam Ranh Bay has been opened to foreign navies. For a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier to visit Cam Ranh Bay would be a vivid symbol of bilateral reconciliation, as the bay was the site of a huge US base during the war. The port call would be intended to signal to Asian nations that the US seeks regional security and to remind China that the US would be a formidable foe.

A less visible but still telling sign of the gradual accommodation has been the opening of a liaison office in Hanoi by the CIA.

Not every Vietnamese is keen about reconciling with the US, particularly older members of the Communist Party who fear the US will undermine their authority.

In the US, many Vietnam veterans who might be expected to be critical of reconciliation have instead indicated that they are indifferent or supportive.

'We don't have a lot of animosity towards the enemy,' said a retired marine who fought twice in Vietnam. 'We were warriors sent by our political leaders to fight the war but then we, not the politicians, got blamed for the war. We were let down by the American public.'

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington