US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius (C) speaks to the media at a bilateral conference at the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi January 26, 2015. The conference is organized as part of the 20th anniversary of the normalization relations between two former foes of the Vietnam War, which killed about three millions Vietnamese people and more than 58 thousand US servicemen. Photo credit: Reuters
American President Barack Obama might have trouble imagining that, far from his home country, he is being lionized in a way that might make North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un blush.
“We love you so much, Mr. Obama!” a Vietnamese reader commented on a piece published Monday by VnExpress, perhaps Vietnam’s most read online newspaper. “If I could vote for you to become the president of the world, I would do so.”
That comment appeared in an avalanche of praise that followed the release of CNN's exclusive interview with Obama on February 1.
"What’s dangerous for us is a destabilized and impoverished and disintegrating China. It’s much better for us if China is doing well. But what we’ve said since the start of my term in office is China’s growth shouldn't be at the expense of other folks," Obama told CNN after concluding his high-profile three-day visit to India last week.
The following snippet inspired VnExpress to translate a small portion of his talk into Vietnamese: “[China] shouldn’t bully small countries like Vietnam or Philippines around maritime issues, but try to resolve those peacefully in accordance with international law."
The VnExpress piece quickly went viral online with an overwhelming majority of readers backing the position of the US president.
“Mr. Obama is the first American president to hammer out many strategies that contribute greatly to the global peace. I wish him another victory in the forthcoming election,” another Vietnamese netizen wrote, evidently unaware that Obama’s term will end next year.
Just as China began flexing its muscles
in the East Sea (the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea), in 2011 Obama announced America’s vaguely assertive plans for a strategic “pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region.
The comment essentially left the local media on tenterhooks, awaiting any sign that US would put a stop to China's public designs on seizing huge swaths of contested maritime territory from neighboring Southeast Asian countries, which also lay claims in the strategically important waters.
After China towed a giant oil rig
into Vietnamese waters last May, the US sought to remain a vocal critic of China’s claims. That said, Washington has done little more than talk.
Analysts point out that in 2012, when China seized control of a disputed reef known as the Scarborough Shoal, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing the rocky outcrop, the US “did nothing,” even though the Philippines is its treaty ally -- something Vietnam is certainly not.
Despite the glaring lack of action, the US “commitment” has continued to make headlines in Vietnamese-language news outlets.
This has left several analysts scratching their heads.
“If the Vietnamese media and public are fishing for and satisfied with ‘words’ from [the US], I wonder how they will react when ‘words’ don’t stop the Chinese,” Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, told Thanh Nien News.
Many in Vietnam are holding fast to hopes that the pending US-led 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership,
or TPP, could play a crucial role as a cushion for Hanoi against its giant northern neighbor. Those hopes reached a fever pitch this year, as the two countries prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their normalization of relations.
Despite all the good vibes in internet comment forums, analysts with a longer view of history remain skeptical the US will stick its neck out for Vietnam.
"The US has a long, long history, nearly 100 years now, of missing opportunities to forge alliances with Vietnam that would have served both Vietnam's and American interests, so we should never discount the likelihood of that happening again,” said Edwin Martini, author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 and an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Khmer Rouge forces led a series of murderous incursions into Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and bordering communities. Vietnamese-led forces then crossed into Cambodia and ousted Pol Pot in 1978, ending a genocide that had killed two million Cambodians.
But the US was not pleased.
“Nearly nobody in the West knew what was going on inside Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the US was already by 1979 four years into a very punitive postwar policy towards Vietnam,” Martini said.
“It's also important to remember that this was all taking place against the gradual normalization of US-China relations. The Carter administration had decided that it was going to move forward with China at the expense of any possibility of a thaw in relations with Vietnam,” he said.
Many point out that the US's intense economic interests in China far outweigh any of its lofty claims to maritime sovereignty for countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Certainly getting the TPP negotiations done would be a tactical victory for US corporate interests, but even with the TPP in place on terms very hospitable to US trade, we need to remember that Vietnam's trade with the US, while strong and growing, pales with that of China,” Martini said.
“How likely is it that the US would risk a threat to its economic interests with China as part of the sea dispute? To me, it seems unlikely.”
It is in this context that skeptics warn that the tactic of playing one country off against another in the current geo-political landscape would be an unwise option for Vietnam.
“Surely, the Vietnamese are too clever to swallow the contrivance in Washington that China is a 'threat' to the peace of the world,” John Pilger, a former war correspondent in Vietnam and a vocal critic of American foreign policies, told Thanh Nien News.
“Be clever, Vietnam. All the ghosts in your epic past tell you that."