Whatever one may think about the Vietnam War, one of the virtues of American policy is that it is able to put things behind and move on. This is a feature of the American temperament and an American divorce is always rather neat, very different from a Vietnamese situation where Nghĩa, Obligations, interferes with Love, Tình, when Love is no longer there. It is cultural differences like these which separate a Vietnamese reading from an American reading of what has happened or is happening in Vietnam.
For instance, many of my friends, Vietnamese Americans now, take comfort in the admission made on September 29, 2010, by former National Security Council advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that “most of what went wrong in Vietnam, we did to ourselves.” This, they think, is not only an admission of failure on the part of the main architect of American policy towards Vietnam in the final years of the Vietnam War; as Vietnamese many of them think also that Kissinger and by extension, America should make amends for that failure.
On the other hand, speaking at a conference in April 2010 entitled “A 35-year Retrospective on the Role of the ARVN” (Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam, i.e. South Vietnam) held at the Army-Navy Club of Washington DC, in responding to a question on the same concern, Ambassador John Negroponte said that an involvement lasting 25 years (1950-1975) and costing 58,000 American lives is not something that one can dismiss easily as America not fulfilling its obligations, whatever the merits of that conflict.
In fact, as we move away from the strong emotions evoked by the war there are more and more studies by respected scholars giving justice to the fighting capabilities of the South Vietnamese army and the strong spirit of opposition to the Communists exhibited by the South Vietnamese population in such test cases as the Tet Attacks of 1968 or later, in the Boat People exodus out of Vietnam.
One would think that with all that revisionist thinking going around, American policy-makers had finally been able to get rid of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome”–i.e. that Vietnam would color all our thinking about foreign entanglements and new conflicts arising around the world. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” exulted President George Bush after the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Is that claim really true? Coming from someone who was on the other side of the debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton–who opposed the war as a college student and who has written that she held contradictory feelings about expressing her opposition–spoke in broad terms about how the conflict influenced her generation’s view of the world: “Like everyone in those days, I had friends who enlisted–male friends who enlisted–were drafted, resisted, or became conscientious objectors; many long, painful, anguished conversations… And yet, the lessons of that era continue to inform the decisions we make.”
That is why I believe we are still here, today, discussing Vietnam and which path it should follow. And I thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss an issue that is not only very close to my heart, to our hearts if I may say so on behalf of the Vietnamese audience here present, but also is very much relevant in the context of America pivoting “back to Asia.”
Soon after the end of the war in 1975, the United States under President Jimmy Carter was ready to embrace its enemy, North Vietnam, especially after Hanoi had reunified the country under its aegis in July 1976. This readiness to embrace the enemy is seen by many Vietnamese as being too hasty, almost to the point of indecency, which led Hanoi to the mistaken belief that the U.S. was ready to surrender on its promise of “war reparations” (as understood by Hanoi) amounting to 3.5 billion. It was Hanoi’s insistence on this payment which led to the ultimate failure of the talks which initially had earned Hanoi’s entry into the United Nations in September 1977. A year later, all these preliminaries became pointless when the U.S. learned that Hanoi was about to sign a 25-year alliance and security pact with Moscow (November 1978) in preparation for an invasion of Cambodia that started on Christmas Day 1978. It was this crucial piece of intelligence which led Zbigniew Brzezinski, then National Security advisor, to convince President Carter to definitely “tilt” towards Beijing and establish normal relations with Mao’s regime (January 1, 1979).
That was how the first rapprochement with communist Vietnam–which many Vietnamese saw as unwise and inadvisable anyway–was scuttled. This was a mistake that eventually cost Hanoi ten years of war with Pol Pot’s Cambodia (1979-1989) and a murderous border war with China (February-March 1979) and pushed back relations with the United States 18 years until 1995 when President Bill Clinton decided to normalize U.S. relations with its former enemy.
Great Strides in U.S.-Vietnam Relations
Since then five ambassadors (Pete Peterson, Raymond Burghardt, Michael Marine, Michael Michalak and currently, David B. Shear) have presided over the transformation of once deeply and mutually suspicious enemies into a flourishing relationship that might eventually make Hanoi a strategic partner of the United States. What is it that has brought about this promising prospect?
Was it because Hanoi has had a change of heart? True enough, as early as 1985 when Gorbachev discovered that the coffers of the Soviet Union were empty necessitating a drastic revision of priorities and abandoning the arms race with the United States, he told Nguyen Van Linh, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), then on a visit to Moscow that the Soviet Union no longer had the means nor ambition to interfere into the internal affairs of its allies, let alone a far country like Vietnam, even though the Soviet navy was maintaining a base in Cam Ranh Bay in Central Vietnam at the time. Not quite believing his ears, Nguyen Van Linh, one of the most conservative personalities in the Vietnamese Communist movement, went on to visit Berlin and here he was told by Erich Honecker himself that such was indeed the case. He was so shocked that he had a heart attack and had to be briefly hospitalized right there in East Berlin. On coming home he conferred with the other leaders, including the most powerful man behind the scene at the time, the Maoist leader Truong Chinh, the one held responsible for the Land Reform campaign of 1953-1956 in North Vietnam that claimed 172,008 victims (according to recently divulged official statistics). It was Truong Chinh who launched the slogan, “Đổi Mới Hay là Chết” (“Renovate or We Are as Good as Dead”), and who encouraged Nguyen Van Linh to launch the now famous Đổi Mới policy in all areas.
Đổi Mới came at the right time and saved Vietnamese Communism from the fate that befell communism in Eastern Europe and eventually even in the Soviet Union. Instead of bucking the clandestine trends that were resisting the government policies at the time (such as resistance to agricultural collectivization and killing of draught animals in the South, contracting out farm labor in Vinh Phu province–a trend that was spreading in the North, etc.), Nguyen Van Linh eased on these restrictions and eventually co-opted these trends. In intellectual life, this liberalization culminated in the October 6 and 7, 1987, meetings with the writers and artists in Hanoi in which Nguyen Van Linh called for the “unfettering of the chains” (“cởi trói”) that were binding them. This led to a renaissance in the arts with the likes of Nguyen Huy Thiep and Duong Thu Huong, Bao Ninh, which however petered out after a couple of years–due to what was seen as too much freedom and therefore led to re-impositions of the stricter controls.
Economically also, the restraints were loosened so as to allow for more personal initiatives and as a result, agriculture rebounded. From the starvation days of 1975-1985, during which period the country had to depend on imports of wheat flour (to bake bread and thus change the traditional diet) and even barley (“bo bo,” which normally is fed only to horses) from abroad, the country became once again a rice-exporting country in 1989. In commerce road checks were eliminated and trade rebounded, bringing down inflation which in 1987 was running at 800 percent down to much more manageable levels. Subsidies and ration cards also were gradually reduced and eventually done away with, which allowed for a more open market. Then foreign investment was allowed starting in 1987, which led to the creation of a real proletariat, a class of workers which now counts tens of millions who depend on salaries that they take home from work.
All this resulted in a mixed economy which the government and CPV calls “a market economy with socialist orientation,” a system which is described as “neither mouse nor bat” but which nonetheless saved the country from collapse, unlike the Soviet Union or its satellites in Eastern Europe. Thus, it is Vietnamese pragmatism which saved the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, one of four remaining communist countries in the world, from the dire fate of its former allies.
Today, outwardly Vietnam is a flourishing economy with a healthy annual growth rate of 6-7 percent and which trades with most of the major countries of the world. According to Ambassador David Shear, trade between Vietnam and the U.S. reached 20 billion U.S. dollars in 2010 and 22 billion in 2011. In the field of education and development, there are now nearly 15,000 students from Vietnam studying in U.S. universities and colleges in the school year 2010-2011, representing an increase of 13.5 percent over the year before. (This pales, however, in comparison with the number of Vietnamese American students in U.S. universities and colleges which comes to some 153,000 nationwide.) While the vast majority of Vietnamese Americans do not recognize the government in Hanoi as their legitimate government there are still over 200 U.S.-based NGOs active in Vietnam in such fields as charity, education and medicine. It is hoped that these NGOs would serve as eventual models for the civil society that is sorely lacking in Vietnam, at least when the regime loosens up its monopolistic control in almost every field in the near future.
In recent years Vietnamese-American relations have moved well beyond economic, humanitarian and educational exchanges. According to Ambassador Shear, the United States has supported Vietnam in many diplomatic functions. As a result, Vietnam has joined ASEAN (1995), WTO (2006, even ahead of the Russian Federation), the UN Security Council (2007) as a two-year non-permanent member and even assumed the chairmanship of the Security Council in 2009. It is right now negotiating for membership in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which would give it the broadest access to the American market.
A Very Poor Human Rights Record
What is holding these negotiations back, however, is the very poor record of Vietnam’s human rights performance. Germany-based Transparency International consistently ranks Vietnam among the lowest graded countries and last year, two reports commissioned by the Embassies of Denmark and Sweden in Hanoi in conjunction with the World Bank said that vast “reforms are needed to improve on transparency and to reduce corruption in land management,” which is prevalent throughout the country 70 percent of which is agricultural land. Even in urban areas, the government has outright confiscated lands and assets, buildings (convents, monasteries, seminaries, pilgrimage sites, cemeteries) and institutions (denominational schools and universities, orphanages, leprosariums, charity clinics, etc.) belonging to various churches and refuses to return them after many decades even though these lands and assets were originally said to be “on loan” only to the government. City people are often forcibly displaced with minimal compensation, as in the Cồn Dầu incident in Da Nang, so as to make place for roads and highways, airfields, or even golf courses. Many people believe this question of land expropriation to be the Achilles heel of the regime.
As the government monopolizes all mass media, some 70 radio and television stations and nearly 700 print media and keeps them all under very strict control there is no room for free expression or for opposite ideas to those allowed by the CPV Cultural and Ideological Committee. Even a well-known think tank like IDS (Institute of Development Studies), which was peopled by mostly former high-placed government officials, had to fold its operations some three years ago when Premier Nguyen Tan Dung came out with a decision forbidding them to publish their findings if they are contrary to government policies. Not just the media, even printing presses–all of them–are under government control and often publications which have cleared through censorship are recalled and destroyed. And reporters can go to jail for publishing stories that they get from high-placed government sources. No wonder that the annual reports of the New York-based Freedom House or Committee to Protect Journalists consistently cite Vietnam as one of the worst countries as far as freedom of the press and freedom of expression are concerned. Even P.E.N. International which meets twice a year never fails to issue resolutions, year after year, condemning Vietnam for its “writers in prison” list.
As far as Internet freedom is concerned there is in Vietnam, as in China, such a thing as the Net police. Not only the Internet café owners are responsible for registering all Internet users and denounce them to the police if they see something suspicious, the police, often plainclothesmen or women, are free to roam the Internet cafés and watch you blatantly behind your back. They can arrest you on the spot, confiscate your USB, or even haul you to the police for interrogation without the need for an arrest warrant. Fortunately, many people can now own their own laptops or computers and work from home. However, even this is not safe as the police can enter your home unannounced and take away your computer for checking on contents found therein. That is why Reporters Sans Frontières in France has year after year cited Vietnam as one of the ten worst “enemies of the Internet.” And that is why Congressman Ed Royce (Republican, CA) has sponsored a bill on Internet freedom which is gaining more and more adherents in the House of Representatives and could become law in the near future.
As far as freedom of religion is concerned, in the run-up to get admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 2004 and 2005 Hanoi did relax somewhat and let out, among others, Father Nguyen Van Ly from prison for purposes of medical treatment. President George W. Bush consequently ordered Hanoi taken off the CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) List, which would have restricted the hands of the U.S. government in dealing with Hanoi and make it impossible for Hanoi to join WTO. Instead of taking it as a friendly gesture of the United States, as soon as Hanoi got admitted to the body it turned around and reimposed the restrictions on religion and in fact caused several conflicts with the Catholic Church (such as the land disputes with Thai Ha Parish right in Hanoi, eventually forcing the resignation of Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, one of the beloved Catholic leaders, and several other incidents, leading to night protest vigils involving tens of thousands of participants).
In the case of the Buddhist Church, the traditional Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam remains outlawed although never officially so. Even Thich Nhat Hanh’s pacifist denomination, who for years tried to accommodate the Communists and finally got the permission to establish a monastery in Lam Dong Province near Dalat, where he could train 400 nuns and priests. Although given a contract lasting five years starting in 2006, on June 27, 2009, according to Wikipedia “electricity was cut to Bat Nha [the monastery in question]. Over the next two days mobs wielding sledgehammers, rocks, and feces raided the monastery, threatened the monks and nuns, and damaged buildings. Authorities made a decision to allow Bat Nha to remain occupied until September 2. Nhat Hanh’s followers refused to go.” Hoodlums were then used to drag the monks and nuns out, tearing up their clothes and belongings. It turned out that the original contract was a mere ploy to give the world the appearance of freedom in religion in order to get the regime off the hook as it was threatened with reinstatement in the CPC List.
Such cat-and-mouse games merely show that the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was not truly interested in religious freedom. Instead, it keeps the various churches under a tight rein, allowing only one (government-run) publication, the weekly Giác Ngộ (“Enlightenment”), for instance, for about 60 million Buddhist followers in the country. Or again, it infiltrates the Catholic Council of Bishops and tries to run it through leaders who are more amenable to the government’s directions. It also forces Catholic seminaries to run compulsory classes on Marxism-Leninism, the history of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s thoughts–all avowedly atheist.
When under the pressure of the United States, it drew up a law recognizing the existence of newly established churches by asking them to register with the government, it also made it extremely difficult for these churches to get their license to operate. Thus, it knows, through the registration process, which protestant church, for instance, was trying to get established in Vietnam but it only gives recognition to a few–thus keeping hundreds of house churches in the lurch, making them fear for stepping out of line and threatening their very existence. The paradoxical result of such a situation is that a church can grow to thousands of followers but it would still have to operate either clandestinely or only in sufferance. Take the case of a religious festival celebrated in May 2011 by some 4,000 Hmong Christians in Mường Nhé District, Điện Biên Province. The police came and asked them to disband because apparently it did not get previous approval by the authorities. When they refused to, the police started shooting with real bullets, killing some 72 people, including old and young, men and women and children, and ended up arresting 130 whom they accused of rioting. As the location was near the Laotian border several dozen people managed to flee across Laos to Thailand where they could retell the terrible tragedy of that night.
Is it any wonder that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body created by Congress to monitor religious freedom developments around the world, in recent years has kept recommending that Vietnam be reinstated on the CPC List on the basis of yearly visits to a variety of religious leaders and institutions in Vietnam? But the State Department has steadfastly refused to do so, claiming that improvements no matter how slight have taken place and that this question must be weighed against other considerations in the whole picture of normalized relations with Vietnam.
In response, what does the government in Hanoi do? Last year, they took Father Nguyen Van Ly back to prison and recently, they appointed Hoàng Công Tư, one of the more vicious Deputy Ministers of Public Security, to head the Committee of Religious Affairs–the main government body in charge of handling the various churches active in Vietnam.
Human rights, said Ambassador David Shear recently, remain a sore spot in the relations between the two countries, a point that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told directly to Vietnam’s President Nguyễn Minh Triết at the APEC (Asian-Pacific Economic Conference) meeting in Honolulu in November 2011. Subsequently, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman while on a four-member visit to Hanoi also told publicly at a press conference that if Hanoi wishes to get U.S. arms (which are apparently coveted items in Hanoi’s shopping list) it had better improve on its human rights record. At every meeting he had with high officials in Hanoi or Saigon, the ambassador assured us, “I impressed upon them the importance of human rights in U.S. policy.” The question, though, said one sceptic listener, is: But does the message sink in? And what proof do we have that it sank in?
Last December 30, Việt Khang, a young composer, was arrested because of two soft-spoken songs that he wrote: “Việt Nam Tôi Đâu?” (“Where is my Vietnam?”) and “Anh Là Ai?” (“Who Are You?”). “Who are you,” he asks the police, “to beat me up when I have done nothing wrong? Like loving my country…” To this day, almost three months later, it’s still not known where he is kept and detained. This so shocked the community that a petition on the White House “We the People” page gathered 25,000 signatures in four days. And this in turn so impressed the White House that they arranged for a meeting with nearly 200 Vietnamese American leaders on March 5, 2012. By the time March 5 came around, the number of those who signed on the petition had shot to 143,000, a number so impressive that every speaker who spoke on that day had to acknowledge it as a phenomenal achievement, one never seen before since the “We the People” page was up. And beside the 200 who were admitted into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building attached to the White House, over a thousand also gathered outside in the bitter cold to support the representation of those inside. The next day, 500 remained in town to walk the halls of Congress and make representations to Senators and Congressmen about the egregious state of affairs in Vietnam as far as human rights are concerned.
Thus in one quick exercise, the Vietnamese Americans have proved that they could mobilize themselves on a vast scale for a good cause, and that all disunity, which is said to be the characteristic of our splintered community across the nation, was just a myth. Not only the old were not dismissed as unrealistic, planted in the past, neither the young were called nincompoops knowing nothing about the suffering of 90 million people back in the old country.
“America is back!”
When Senator Obama became the new President of the United States, there was hope that he would devote some of his time to Asia, having been raised himself as a young Indonesian in Jakarta. Furthermore, as a child he also spent his tender years in Hawaii where he must have met and made friends with lots of kids of East Asian background. Would such a person help correct the generally Europe-centric vision of America’s policy makers?
But the first two years of his administration had him swamped in the details of two wars in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the Arab Spring threatens to take more of his attention away from Asia.
As the war in Iraq was concluding and the one in Afghanistan winding down, President Obama did turn his attention to the Far East and Asia. In September 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “America is back” in Asia. In July 2010, while attending an ASEAN meeting in Hanoi, she spelled out the U.S. position on the South China Sea (which the Vietnamese call their “Eastern Sea”): free international navigation through this piece of water is considered a “national interest” of the United States, which the U.S. is willing to defend together with its allies, but the U.S. prefers to see conflicts arising from this body of international waters resolved peacefully so as not to disrupt the huge international traffic of goods and commodities that uses those sea lanes to feed the economies of Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan, among some of the top economies of the world.
This was said in response to the Chinese extravagant claims to 80 percent of the South China Sea (through an arbitrarily drawn so-called “cow’s tongue”) and its definition given some time earlier that the South China Sea was one of China’s “core interests” on the same level as Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. That the United States in the person of Secretary Clinton was willing to come back with such a rebuttal was so shocking that the Chinese representative, Defense Secretary Yang Guanglie, had to walk out of the meeting and did not come back until half an hour later after he had apparently received new instructions from Beijing.
Ever since then, many American dignitaries have come to Vietnam, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and reiterated the firm U.S. commitment to defend the right of unimpeded navigation through the South China Sea. In the meantime discussions are also going on between the U.S. and Vietnam about military ties which so far are limited to rather discreet exchanges of military personnel to learn about each other’s capabilities. American warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Washington, have visited Vietnam or made port calls to show that American naval power is constantly patrolling the area. However, as Senators McCain and Lieberman have made abundantly clear in their press conference in Hanoi (January 20, 2012), Vietnam cannot expect to get U.S. weapons until and unless it can improve significantly on its human rights record.
In this connection it should be said that the interests of the Vietnamese American community (as seen expressed in the petition to the White House movement in February and March this year) are fully in consonance with the demands of Senators McCain and Lieberman, reflecting a wide range of consensus in the American Congress.
Which Way, Vietnam?
What has Hanoi learned from its entanglements with foreign supporters?
Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnamese Communism, became early involved with the international communist movement. As early as 1923, he was already an officer in the Krestintern (Peasant International) and then the Komintern starting in 1924. In 1926 he was sent to China to outwardly serve as an interpreter in Michael Borodin’s mission but in actuality to foment a communist movement in the Vietnamese nationalist ranks then operating in Guangdong. But as a paid agent of the Communist International, he always made the Vietnamese aims subservient to the dictates from Moscow.
While his loyalty paid off in terms of weaponry and even military advice (from both China and the Soviet Union), thus enabling him and his movement to defeat the French in Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, he was frustrated in his nationalistic aim of unifying Vietnam when Zhou Enlai forced him to accept the partition of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel at the Geneva Conference in July 1954.
This led him to renew the war, this time first against the nationalists rallied around Ngo Dinh Diem, supported by the U.S., but later against the U.S. and the national army of Vietnam once Ngo Dinh Diem was killed in a CIA-supported military coup. Although long portrayed as a pure David fighting against the U.S. and allied Goliath, recent scholarship revealed that at one point during this conflict the Chinese had as many as 320,000 troops stationed in North Vietnam, the Russians and Cubans provided military advisors, and 801 North Korean pilots even engaged in dog fights with American F104s over North Vietnamese air space. Thus went the myth of southern insurgency and North Vietnam’s relative non-interference with the war in South Vietnam.
In actuality, although there were southern elements fighting against the government in the South, from the very first it was led by northern cadres who made sure that the “revolution” would not deviate from the Communist International aims as seen by Moscow. As a matter of fact, it was Vo Nguyen Giap and his command staff in Hanoi who planned for the Tet offensives all over South Vietnam at least as early as one year before (1967) and it was Ho Chi Minh’s Tet poem of 1968, broadcast over the radio, that served as the signal to launch the overall campaign.
The total failure of any popular uprising anywhere during Tet 1968 not only revealed the strategic miscalculations of Hanoi, it also helped to annihilate the infrastructure that the southern elements had spent decades building up in the cities and nationalist-held territories. As they surfaced to lead the attacks in the cities, these southern elements were mowed down, which led to the near-complete wiping out of the insurgent movement in the South and the debilitating of much of the attacking forces sent down from the North. About 80,000 of the attacking forces were eliminated in the more and more desperate gambles of 1968. This took from three to four years, according to various Communist sources, for their troops to recover. And this means that the southern insurgency which at first started small and appeared to be an indigenous guerrilla movement, from 1968 on, became a conventional war that pitted regimental and division-size units from North Vietnam against the army of the South, especially after 1972 when the U.S. ground troops were no longer involved in the fighting, leaving only air support and a reduced number of military advisors. In the Easter Offensive of 1972, Hanoi sent south everything it had (some 14 divisions) in highly motorized columns supported by tanks and artillery, yet they were all beat back in An Loc, Kontum and Quang Tri after the initial shock.
Our side made two strategic mistakes which led to the final debacle. One was President Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term and the opening of peace talks with Hanoi in Paris. This transformed a huge military victory into a psychological defeat, thus turning the tide of the war. And the other was the huge concession made by Kissinger in the Paris Agreement of January 1973 to let Northern troops–clearly the aggressor party–stay in place in the South while the Americans pulled entirely out of Indochina. Recalling years later this bad experience with the main North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, Kissinger said: “I would look a lot better if I had never met him.” And in support of this reading, Nguyen Khac Vien, probably the best-known intellectual in Hanoi, in 1977 declared in front of Antenne 2 Television in France: “Ha ha ha, we tricked you, we had you hoodwinked.”
Little did Hanoi know that by cheating it was playing into the hands of Beijing. After Ho Chi Minh’s death Le Duan chose to side squarely with the Soviets. When he went ahead and signed the friendship and security pact with Moscow, Vietnam became an international pariah in both Washington and Beijing’s eyes. Even Pol Pot got the backing of ASEAN, Beijing and to a lesser extent, the U.S. Hanoi managed to get out of this bind only by unilaterally pulling out of Cambodia in 1989 when Eastern European communism was going down the drain. When communism collapsed in the Soviet Union (1991), Hanoi was so scared of being “out in the cold” that it pleaded with Beijing to get back into the fold, now controlled by the latter. This was what led to the Chongqing meeting with Jiang Zemin in September of 1991, at which basically the Vietnamese leaders surrendered to Beijing.
This was the beginning of a shameful period in which communist Vietnam yielded on one front after another to the demands of its powerful neighbor to the North. After the concession of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes to the Chinese (in an abject letter to Zhou Enlai signed by Pham Van Dong on September 14, 1958), Hanoi went on to sign one pact after another to carry out its promises made in Chongqing, losing land (at least 720 square kilometers of borderland, including the Nam-quan Gate separating Vietnam from China, the Ban Gioc waterfalls, and the Tuc Lam beach) and sea (an estimated 10,000 square kilometers of the Gulf of Tonkin) and fishing rights. In recent years, Vietnam also signed concessions to China for exploiting bauxite in the Central Highlands and for renting 300,000 acres of forest land in six northern provinces for 50 years.
Despite all these concessions which threaten the very defense of the country, China remains insatiable and makes claim to all the possessions of Vietnam in the South China Sea. It also harasses Vietnamese fishermen, sometimes shooting them to death or capturing them and their catch, demanding ransoms.
This so exacerbates relations between the two countries that anti-China feelings grow by the day, putting pressure on the government to do something about resisting these Chinese encroachments. There is widespread and growing sentiment within Vietnam that only an alliance of sorts with the United States and other ASEAN countries could possibly help Vietnam squeak out of China’s grip and retain its independence. But such a move is fraught with danger and requires the most skilled negotiations and manipulations if it is to avoid a war in the near future with its powerful neighbor to the North.
What Vietnam is facing right now is a crisis of legitimacy. Ho Chi Minh started out as a Soviet agent in the hope of throwing off the French yoke. In this he succeeded just as his regime later succeeded in the war against the U.S. and South Vietnam but at enormous cost (at least 4 million lives) only to become a Chinese colony in all but in name, and now it has to struggle to get U.S. support in facing China and its depredations. Why? Because it is the first duty of any government to defend the territorial integrity of the nation but in this, the Hanoi government has failed miserably. How well or badly it will do in countering the Chinese challenge will be the very test that the people of Vietnam will use to judge its final place in Vietnamese history.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich
Springfield, March 20, 2012