For Vietnam, the spirit of Dien Bien Phu lives on

Peter Hunt looks at the legacy of the battle 60 years ago that changed Asia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 8:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 1:57am

Sixty years ago today, victorious Vietnamese soldiers raised a flag bearing the motto "to fight and win" over the French position at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Tonkin. After a bloody 56-day battle, that the Vietnamese had been able to sustain only due to Chinese logistical support, their victory effectively ended the eight-year First Indochina War, and the French colonial empire in Asia.

Dien Bien Phu, and the 1954 Geneva Conference that it dominated, also marked the start of many things. It signalled the emergence of the People's Republic of China as an actor on the world diplomatic stage.

It sowed the seeds of the war between the two Vietnams and marked the start of America's rocky involvement. And it was the beginning of the antagonism between Vietnam and China that led to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.

In 1954, the acknowledgement of great-power status for the People's Republic was anathema to the Americans, who only agreed to the presence of Zhou Enlai and the Chinese delegation at Geneva under pressure from their French and British allies. American acquiescence was hardly graceful. Secretary of state John Foster Dulles refused to meet Zhou and left the conference, leaving negotiations to his deputy.

But it was a start, and from Geneva onwards the views and voice of the People's Republic in international affairs could not be ignored. Zhou might have looked back wryly on Dulles' snub when, 18 years later, he shook president Richard Nixon's hand on his arrival in Beijing at the beginning of "the week that changed the world".

Zhou could hardly have asked for a better premiere on the world stage. After Dien Bien Phu, Georges Bidault said that the French negotiating hand contained only "the two of clubs and a three of diamonds". But the removal of the French in Indochina was not Zhou's only aim. The Chinese intent was not to back the Americans into a corner that would force them to internationalise the war, or, even worse, take it to the Chinese mainland; and at the same time limit potential Vietnamese power on China's southern border.

To these ends, Zhou pressured the Vietnamese into accepting a less favourable outcome than their battlefield success might have justified, with a partition of the country at the 17th parallel, instead of much further south, and the promise of reunification elections. Such Chinese ambivalence was not lost on the Vietnamese.

Vietnamese reunification would take another 21 years, and within four years of the fall of Saigon, Vietnam and China would be at war themselves.

Nayan Chanda has argued that the losers in Indochina were: firstly the Vietnamese people, who suffered three decades of war; secondly, the Chinese, who ended up with a strong Vietnam to their south anyway; and only thirdly the Americans, who sacrificed much blood and treasure but, in the long term, suffered only a temporary loss in prestige and confidence.

Thirty years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the wheel has nearly turned again. With the American "tilt" towards Asia, its erstwhile Vietnamese enemy is now its partner in their defence policy dialogue, and the recipient of US$18 million for enhancements to its coastguard.

In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu remains an iconic example of the nation's determination to stand on its own feet and to "fight and win". A few of this year's commemorative posters for the battle feature modern ships and aircraft defending South China Sea islands rather than images of a battle 60 years ago, but the message is clear.

Dien Bien Phu changed Asia and the consequences of the battle still resonate today.

Peter Hunt is conducting doctoral research at the Department of War Studies, King's College London