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Chinese aggression pushes Vietnam toward the US, but experts urge caution

This April 23, 2013 US Navy handout photo shows Cmdr. Justin Orlich, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) giving a tour of the ship to nuns from the Con Ga Church in Da Nang, Vietnam. Chung-Hoon is currently supporting a Naval Exchange Activity (NEA) in Da Nang. Photo: AFP

During a short hiatus in the US bombing of North Vietnam, an American intellectual was invited to visit Hanoi in 1970 and lecture at a local college.

The first morning he arrived he was taken to the war museum to listen to "long lectures with dioramas about Vietnamese wars with China many centuries ago."

"The lesson was clear," the American intellectual said on condition of anonymity. "[The US] happens to be destroying [Vietnam] now, but you'll leave. China will always be here."

The Americans left and are back, this time as an ally, in a development that has intrigued observers and scholars because it takes place at a time East Sea tensions have risen again between Vietnam and China.

More than 1,000 years of occupation and three deadly wars in the 1970s and 1980s provides the historic context for the anti-China sentiment that has run deep in Vietnam for long, analysts say.

They also say that given the longer periods of French colonialism and Chinese aggression against Vietnam, and given the strategic importance of the US in the world after 1975, it should not come as a surprise that the Vietnamese people and their government are ready to put the past behind them more quickly with the US.

"The Vietnamese have been more willing to forgive the US than other countries with which they have been at war," said Edwin Martini, author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 and an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University.

"American visitors to Vietnam, myself included, have long been fascinated by the Vietnamese willingness to "˜forgive, but not forget' the horrors of the Vietnam War, particularly when compared with the legacies of French colonialism and the deeply rooted historical tensions with China," Martini told Vietweek.

A 2010 Associated Press-GfK Poll, considered "one of the most exhaustive surveys to date of contemporary Vietnamese attitudes," found that 56 percent of 1,600 Vietnamese surveyed across the country said they rarely, if ever, think of the Vietnam War, which ended in April 30, 1975.

Only 11 percent said they think about it often. Fifty-five percent said the war had not affected them directly, a result that may reflect how young the population is: two-thirds of the 90 million strong Vietnamese population were born after the war.

"The Vietnamese have a tradition of being tolerant and forgiving and looking to the future rather than the past," the AP report quoted Pham Chi Lan, former vice chairwoman of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as saying.

Thirty-eight years after the end of Vietnam War, such perceptions are gaining relevance in the context of increased Chinese aggression over the extensive claims it is illegally making over the strategically important and resource-rich East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.

Naval muscle

The US Navy destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and the salvage ship USNS Salvor docked April 21 in the central port of Tien Sa in Da Nang City. The deployment of the guided-missile carrier comes at a time when China has publicly flexed its naval muscles in waters off the Vietnamese coast.

Two days later, Le Thanh An, the US Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City,  visited the Da Nang-based administration office of the Hoang Sa (Paracels) Islands  and held discussions with local government officials. Vietnam appointed a Da Nang government official as Hoang Sa mayor in 2009 in a largely symbolic move to assert sovereignty over the archipelago, which has been occupied by China since 1974.

Also in Da Nang, the US announced on April 24 that funding for a project to clean up dioxin, the toxic chemical left behind by Agent Orange at a former American airbase, would double to US$84 million.

These events have been widely covered in the press and well received by the public, who also express hopes that the US presence in the region will act as a bulwark for Vietnam against China's belligerence.

But several experts have said the event must be considered from a global geopolitical point of view: Da Nang is a strategic deep water harbor in the East Sea, where China is rapidly expanding its military, economic and civilian presence.

"There is a geopolitical significance to these activities and their location in central Vietnam," said Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Since US President Barrack Obama announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region in late 2011, the US has maintained it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute.

But critics say the pivot toward Asia in foreign and defense policy has already rattled the region and increased tensions between Washington and Beijing with the latter viewing it as a move to contain its military and economic growth.

"The US wants to play a role in every place in the world, and may see Vietnam as one key to a stronger military presence in Asia," said Chuck Searcy, a US war veteran who has spent 18 years working to clean up the war-leftover land mines and unexploded ordnance in Vietnam.

"Vietnam must be very cautious about alignments which might be misinterpreted, which could create problems that escalate out of Vietnam's control, problems that might have been prevented," Searcy said.

Embargo delay

The two former foes normalized relations in 1995 after a post-war, US-led embargo had strangled Vietnam for two decades, but it is not well known that the normalization could in fact have taken place much earlier.

In his seminal book, Brother Enemy, author Nayan Chanda says American banks and oil companies were invited to Hanoi as early as 1976 to explore possibilities of trade and financial relations.

"They [the Vietnamese government] wanted to seek everyone's help. It was this embargo that prevented western countries from helping Vietnam," he told Vietweek in a 2010 interview.

But this fact is not brooded over. A majority of Vietnamese believe that normalization of ties with the US was a crucial factor in the stunning economic growth in Vietnam.

"The country's economy has changed a lot since the US normalized relations with Vietnam," said Tang Van Trong, who joined the navy of the US-backed regime during the war. "Without the normalization, livelihoods and opportunities would not have improved for everyone."

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Many people have high hopes that Vietnam and the US will soon ink an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Pledges have been made from the two sides to fast track the TPP negotiations.

The pact is seen as key to ensuring the United States helps to write the rules for trade in the Asia-Pacific region and is not left on the outside as countries organize manufacturing, agriculture and service sectors around China, a Reuters report said.

It aims to phase out tariffs on most goods traded between the countries over 10 years and tackle "21st century issues" such as the role of state-owned enterprises in trade, government innovation policies, cross-border data flows and supply chain management, it added.

US government offcials have said the TPP should help US exports in machinery, aircraft, medical instruments, agriculture and other sectors.

Those who defend the TPP say the deal would encourage multinational companies to invest in Vietnam, because they would be able to export to the US easily.

"The US is Vietnam's largest export market. If you can lower barriers to entry then Vietnam will benefit," said Jonathan Pincus, a Ho Chi Minh City-based economist with the Harvard Kennedy School's Vietnam program.

"What you have to give up in order to get that access is up to the negotiations," Pincus said.

But few Vietnamese reports have focused on what experts say are  legitimate concerns about the TPP. 

"The negotiations and text are shrouded in secrecy, yet leaks indicate that the US is trying to use the treaty to impose restrictive intellectual property rules that could prove incredibly damaging to developing countries," said Michael  Geist, a law expert with the University of Ottawa.

"This is certainly true for Vietnam, which should be very cautious about an agreement that may not be in its national interest."

Analysts concur that the US-Vietnam - China relations balance is a major issue affecting the TPP.  

Monsanto specter

One example of what awaits Vietnam as it forges closer ties with the US has been seen in the facile entry of  Monsanto into the country. The single largest producer of Agent Orange during the war, the US corporation has been allowed to carry out lab research and tests on the highly controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Vietnam.

Critics of GM crops say this is not good news since they are illegal and most Vietnamese remain clueless about and indifferent to the worldwide debate swirling around them. Besides, since GMOs are categorized in Vietnam under the fancy umbrella name of biotechnology, there is a belief among some people that genetically engineered crops are an excellent agricultural innovation.

Indeed, while the news of two Chinese spraying an unknown kind of chemicals on pineapple plants made it way to the front page of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, one of the two top dailies in Vietnam, the local media coverage on the effects of GMO has received scant coverage.

"I do wonder what the reaction in Vietnam would be if and when the Vietnamese people find out that the GMOs being pushed in the area are largely produced by Monsanto," Martini said.

Heart and mind struggle

The US and China seem destined to compete for the heart and mind of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, analysts say.      

The fundamental question for Southeast Asia is whether it can resist these new outside influences currently manifest in the East Sea disputes - and sustain its own centrality in maintaining the security of the region.

"Unfortunately for Southeast Asia, this struggle will tacitly force Asian countries to choose between the two," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute.

Valencia pointed out that  supposed neutrals like Indonesia and Malaysia are now, reluctantly or not, leaning toward the US.  Of course Singapore, as a "strategic partner," and the Philippines, as a US ally, are already "there", he said. 

Thailand is a holdover US military ally from another era. But if its behavior during the Second World War is any guide, it will bend toward the most powerful, he said.

And the US has even made political inroads in Myanmar "” heretofore a staunch China supporter "” while former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unusual but understandable visit to incoming ASEAN chair Brunei in September 2012, he added.

But this Western "invasion" has not completely erased the ancient influence of Chinese culture"”and the respect for, and fear of, China.

"Many Southeast Asian countries are fundamentally realistic and take the long view. China will always be there," Valencia said.

"Their valid concern is that this upstart"”the US"”and its power, both soft and hard, may eventually recede like the outgoing tide only to be replaced by a Chinese storm surge."


 

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