BANGKOK, Thailand – Thirty-seven years ago this week, North Vietnamese officials held an official coming-out party in Saigon, still strewn with rubble and abandoned US military hardware.
The era of napalmed jungles and rice-paddy firefights was over at last. South Vietnam, backed by American weapons and soldiers, was vanquished. Over loudspeakers at a Saigon rally, Gen. Tran Van Tra, head of a provisional communist authority, exalted citizens’ “fierce anti-American spirit” while vowing to punish those “continuing to serve as henchmen for foreign countries.”
In the ensuing decades, the armed forces of Vietnam and America have come a long way from blowing one another to pieces. The former foes’ modern courtship has led to small-scale drills, American warships docking at ports once occupied by the US and even talks of offering secrets of non-weaponized nuclear power to Vietnam.
“Because of this new world we’re entering, Vietnam, lo and behold, is about to become a great new military ally of the United States,” said Robert Kaplan, an author and advisor to the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, in a speech to the Carnegie Council. “It’s precisely because the Vietnamese defeated the US in a war that they have no axes to grind, no chips on their shoulder, no face to lose.”
The depth of this budding friendship, however, may be tested on the open seas in the near future.
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The US-Vietnam military relationship is largely propelled by a common desire: blunting China’s dominion over the South China Sea. Just as 19th-century America demanded supremacy over the Caribbean, China is aggressively asserting claims over these Southeast Asian waters, a vital trade route that is rich in undersea oil.
But most of this territory is much closer to other countries that claim also portion of the sea such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Skirmishes between China and these smaller powers – involving fishing frigates, coast guard ships and other vessels – are recurrent. An ongoing conflict pits an unbudging Filipino coast guard frigate against China’s civilian maritime agency. A similar dispute last year saw a Chinese boat ramming cables dragged by a Vietnamese oil-exploration ship.
A flurry of editorials in China’s state-run media outlets warn that “siding with the US is not a good choice” and that the “minnows will get a reality check.” With the potential for small-scale battles running higher each year, any clashes between the Chinese and Vietnam or the Philippines could tug America into the fray.
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“If there’s an attack, there would be suspicion in Washington that the Chinese are picking a weaker player to test the resolve of the larger player. It’s the old ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ scenario,” said Michael Green, a defense expert with Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The US clearly does not want to be drawn into these conflicts. Washington will not give a blank check to Hanoi or Manila,” Green said. “But there would be enormous pressure on Washington from our allies to not let this aggression stand. Our allies would quietly demand that. They’d think, ‘We could be next.’”
Even as shared anxiety over China’s rise nudges Vietnam and America closer, it remains unclear whether Vietnam will truly become a “great new military ally” of the US.
So far, joint naval drills have amounted to firefighting and search-and-rescue missions. The two militaries promised last year to collaborate on medical training. Only a handful of Vietnamese soldiers are brought to the US for training each year. One program sends Vietnamese officers to Texas to learn English.
“During one set of exercises, they had an exchange of state secrets,” said Carl Thayer, a defense analyst and Vietnamese speaker with Australia’s University of New South Wales. “The secrets were just cooking recipes.”
America still refuses to sell weapons to Vietnam, which remains largely reliant on Russian technology. During a January visit to solidify military ties, led by war prisoner-turned-senator John McCain, the Vietnamese presented a “wish list” of weapons, McCain told reporters in Bangkok. He countered by insisting that Vietnam would first need to cut down on human rights abuses.
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“Even if the US sold them weapons of a defensive nature, China would be very upset,” Thayer said. China, he said, has a way of pulling them together but also limiting their intimacy. Neither Vietnam nor the US are keen to rub their relationship in Beijing’s face. Both are deeply reliant on China as a trading partner.
“China is always warning Vietnam that there’s danger in burning the candle at both ends,” Thayer said.
Warmth towards the US is also subdued by some within Vietnam’s Communist Party. Party ideology still warns of “peaceful evolution,” a phrase considered much more nefarious than it sounds. Among communists, it describes the hostile insemination of pro-democracy ideas with the goal of eroding one-party rule.
In 1998, three years after the US and Vietnam normalized relations, a publicly available Vietnamese defense document warned that “pretexts such as ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’ ... the intrusion into this country by means of culture and ideology and through various attempts and maneuvers of the wicked forces” are “great menaces” to Vietnam’s stability.
In 2009, during the unveiling of similar defense department paper, the rhetoric was little changed. At a press conference, according to classified US documents exposed by Wikileaks, Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told of “pernicious efforts to use the mantle of human rights and democracy” to challenge Vietnam’s government.
In another cable, which details a US ambassador’s plea to increase his in-country staff, a high-ranking Vietnamese official is described as asking “why are you so demanding?” and noting that authorities don’t like “the fact that you have people running all over the country.”
These sentiments are borne not from anti-Americanism per se but from Vietnam’s ferocious independent streak, Thayer said. “There might be one odd person out there who’s a veteran and hates Americans,” he said. “But it’s not the prevailing view. The government propaganda has told people to let bygones be bygones.”
The fall of Saigon, though burned into the American psyche, is more often seen by the Vietnamese as one blip in a long series of repelled invaders including the Khmers, the Mongols and the French. But China, which ruled Vietnam for 1,000 years, is foremost among colonizers.
With China’s efforts now turned towards dominating the South China Sea – called the “East Sea” in Vietnam – the US faces increasing pressure to keep the sea open to its allies. More low-level clashes on the open waters appear likely, Green said, and America may be asked to prove its power by diplomatically backing China down.
“Today, it’s the Philippines,” Green said. “Next year, it may be Vietnam again. If there’s a conflict, and there’s any ambiguity as to who started it, it will inevitably be seen as a challenge to US primacy in the region.”