Old enemies Vietnam and America draw closer in the face of a common rival - China

Donald Kirk says more than 40 years after the Vietnam war, the visit by the country's communist party secretary to America cements the two countries' improving relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 July, 2015, 11:20am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:50am

The visit of modern Vietnam's top leader to the White House conjures up strange memories for millions of Americans who cannot get over the failure of US forces and policies in the Vietnam war. It's hard to blame Vietnam war veterans, and many more Vietnamese Americans who fled Vietnam after the debacle of the defeat of the Saigon regime, if they find it strange to see President Barack Obama receiving the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

How times have changed in the four decades since US helicopters were lifting the last Americans from the US embassy and other pick-up points in Saigon as Communist forces were about to "liberate" the city - and the country. Now Vietnam has a foe much closer to home - China, the country that provided most of the arms for the forces from what we once called "North" Vietnam as well as the Viet Cong in "South" Vietnam.

Obama and his guest, Nguyen Phu Trong, were too circumspect to mention China by name, but they left no doubt the US and Vietnam share common cause about its de facto takeover of much of the South China Sea. Might the US soon be sending modern arms to Vietnam - just as bygone US governments armed and equipped the forces of the old "Republic of Vietnam"?

Such a strange reversal is altogether possible. When I was in Saigon in late April for the 40th anniversary of "the fall" of the old Saigon government, I heard Admiral Tran Thanh Minh, deputy chief of Vietnam's small navy, talk frankly about Vietnam's border war with China in 1979 and China's claims on the South China Sea.

"For thousands of years, the Vietnamese people have been fighting invasions from China," he remarked. "We defeated China with endless spirit." Now, he suggested, "the sale of US weapons would be a good way to modernise our weapons and increase our strength".

Obama and Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang two years ago formed what they called a "comprehensive partnership" - a term that comes close to sounding like a treaty. Truong Tan Sang, however, ranks second in the hierarchy to the party leader; Trong's visit confirms the partnership's durability and significance.

In the realm of believe-it-or-not, US warships have called on Vietnamese ports, including Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, one-time havens for US naval and marine forces. Next, may we expect the US to donate submarines and patrol boats to the common cause as Vietnam protests at the build-up of Chinese airstrips, ports, oil-drilling and other facilities in the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys?

While weighing the prospects, Obama had to be pleased with Trong's mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - the US-led grouping of a dozen nations that includes Vietnam but not China. Would Vietnam really want to cooperate fully as the US attempts to restrain Chinese expansionism around its periphery?

Maybe not, considering that Vietnam and China are age-old neighbours and might find reasons to get along. Cross-border trade goes on regardless of animosities. For that matter, Chinese tourists flock to Vietnam on sightseeing expeditions.

Yet another nagging issue is that of human rights in Vietnam. The regime countenances commercial and economic freedom that once seemed impossible, but suppression of political opposition and full religious freedom is still the order of the day. Vietnamese Americans have led protests against arrests and beatings of dissidents and recalcitrants, some sentenced to long prison terms.

Basically, Obama paid only lip service to such concerns. The priority was on building military and commercial ties that once seemed unimaginable. Two decades after the US and Vietnam formed diplomatic relations, Trong's visit suggests US-Vietnamese relations are escalating to new levels as the tragedy of the US war in Vietnam recedes ever deeper into the miasma of history.

Journalist and author Donald Kirk was a Vietnam war correspondent. [email protected]