US ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius (C) poses with local high school students at the opening of the first US Higher Education Fair in Hanoi on January 30, 2015. The fair, attended by some 40 US colleges, is part of activities marking the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. Photo: AFP
Tuong Lai, a sociologist also known as Nguyen Phuoc Tuong who advised two Vietnamese prime ministers between 1991 and 2006, has been urging Vietnam to move away from a one-state reliance on China.
When China launched a blitz last year designed to seize territory in disputed waters, Tuong Lai and 60 Vietnamese Communist Party members signed an open letter urging the country's leadership to, among other things, “escape” from their dependence on China.
At his apartment in Phu My Hung -- a posh urban area in Saigon – Tuong Lai insisted that Vietnam has no choice but to ramp up its alliance with the US to deter China.
“Never has the US needed Vietnam like it does now; we both need each other,” he said.
When China towed a giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters in May 2014, intellectuals like Tuong Lai, who had survived the Vietnam War, became increasingly enthusiastic about the Obama administration's vague promise of a coming “strategic pivot” to Asia.
This same camp has pushed hard against any effort to bring Vietnam further inside China's political and economic orbit.
“When the US started bombing Vietnam, Vietnam had to go to China to seek support. But that doesn’t mean that Vietnam has to go to China for everything,” said Nayan Chanda, author of the acclaimed post-war history Brother Enemy: The War after the War. “Vietnam’s interest is to protect its national integrity and security and that might require changing alliances.”
And the feeling is mutual.
Heather Marie Stur, an associate professor of history at University of Southern Mississippi, said the US has had a strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific region that dates back to at least the mid-19th century, when the US sent a naval expedition to Japan and worked to secure access to Chinese markets.
“Also, the US had colonized the Philippines by the early twentieth century, so its interest in the Pacific is not new,” Stur said. “After World War II, the US funded the rebuilding of Japan and fought a war in Korea to support the non-communist government in South Korea, so the US has demonstrated an interest in the region for quite a long time.”
Given that, analysts say withdrawing from Asia, particularly at this stage, would be catastrophic for the US.
“It is not because that Americans love the Vietnamese so they are going to help them,” Chanda said. “They love themselves and their own interests."
‘Millstone around the neck’
Officially, no Vietnamese leader has advocated aligning the country with any military power. They have also publicly proclaimed that they will avoid playing one country off against another.
Privately, most Vietnamese can vividly recall every invasion and act of Chinese aggression for the last thousand years. But few ever mention the role the US may have played in China's most recent efforts.
When the Chinese seized the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands in the East Sea -- the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea -- in 1974, the US Seventh Fleet ignored distress calls from the Republic of Vietnam -- their nominal ally -- paving the way for an illegal occupation that continues today.
Five years later China’s then vice-president Deng Xiaoping flew to Washington seeking the green light to send an estimated force of 600,000 Chinese troops over the Vietnamese border.
The Carter administration “simply told the Chinese to go ahead but keep the operation brief,” Chanda told Thanh Nien News. “They were basically winking at them.”
Official figures have it that 100,000 Vietnamese civilians died as a result.
China's President Xi Jinping (front R) gestures to Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (front L) as they pose for a group photo with Chinese and Vietnamese youths at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters
Chanda now says “the US was completely complicit” in the bloody incursion in 1979 designed to punish the country for having ousted the genocidal Chinese-backed Pol Pot regime t
he previous year.
Far from ignorant of this history, today's intellectuals seem to want to move beyond it.
Tuong Lai, the Vietnamese intellectual, recalled telling a US envoy who came to his house that he knew too well what the Americans had done to Vietnam in the past.
“I told that diplomat that I was well aware how the US had pulled the rug out from under Vietnam’s feet,” he said. “But history should not become a millstone around one's neck.”
‘Fresh, fickle, and fleeting’
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 are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their normalization of relations.
Though the date of his arrival has yet-to-be-announced, Nguyen Phu Trong is expected to be the first Vietnamese Communist Party chief to visit the US.
Earlier this month, while Trong was still in Beijing for a four-day visit, deputy house speaker Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan took an Executive Leadership Program at Harvard's Kennedy School as well as meetings with US politicians and senators in Washington. Her visit came on the heels of what was considered a very productive but low-key US visit last month by Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang.
Both leaders are members of the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Communist Party.
“The increase in high-level visits is part of the stepped-up relations between the two countries at many different levels,” said Murray Hiebert, a Vietnam expert at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China is watching Vietnam’s relations with the United States very carefully. China is fully aware that Vietnam has long had a policy of trying to balance its relations between the world's major powers,” Hiebert said.
In the 1980s, Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam’s then deputy PM and foreign minister, was very forthright about the country’s relations with its northern neighbor: “We cannot choose our neighbor. We have to live with China.”
More than three decades later, as the US and Vietnam prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations, Thach’s son Pham Binh Minh, an American-educated diplomat who holds his father's position, has seemed to reinforce that diplomatic pathway but with more substance: Vietnam can choose friends.
“No two countries have worked harder” to overcome differences than the US and Vietnam, Minh said during a visit to the US last October. “People could not believe how fast our relationship developed.”
But not everyone is buying Minh's version of events.
“As Vietnam's leaders should well know, China has been -- and always will be -- an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders,” said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute.
“In stark contrast, the US presence in the region is comparatively fresh, fickle and probably fleeting.”