By Henry Srebrnik
Like many people of my generation, I was a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War while a college student. I took part in anti-war marches as a student at McGill University in Montreal in the 1960s and remained against the war while in graduate school at Brandeis University near Boston (then a hotbed of left-wing causes) in the early 1970s.
The war resulted in the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. The country was in ruins by the time the North Vietnamese Communists completed their conquest of the south in 1975.
Four decades later, it is more obvious than ever that the anti-war people were correct in their view that American involvement in Vietnam was not only tragic but absurd.
American intervention was based on the “domino theory,” which asserted that a monolithic worldwide Communist conspiracy, centred in Beijing and Moscow, rather than an indigenous nationalist movement, was behind the war, and that a Viet Cong victory would facilitate the spread of Communism throughout Asia and beyond.
In fact, the Chinese and Vietnamese have historically been at odds, and even fought a border war in 1979. Border conflicts between Vietnam and China continued until 1988.
True, Vietnam remains a Communist state, but it poses no threat to its neighbours, and is — ironically — today one of the safest countries in which Americans might find themselves.
Now a nation of 90 million people, Vietnam initiated economic reforms (known as “Doi Moi”) beginning in 1986, shifting from a centrally-planned economy with state subsidies to an “open door” market economy.
Vietnam signed co-operative economic and trade agreements with the European Union in 1992, became a member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1995 and of APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) three years later.
Nguyen Tan Dung, elected Prime Minister in June 2006 by the National Assembly, has continued the process of gradually liberalizing the economy, promoting more competitive, export-driven industries, and lifting millions out of poverty. He won Vietnam admission to the World Trade Organization in 2007.
Last year, gross domestic product (GDP) growth topped 5.4 per cent, and the country’s GDP reached $153 billion.
In 1994, the United States lifted a 19-year trade embargo of Vietnam and a year later, the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. Apart from their respective embassies in Hanoi and Washington, the United States now operates a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), while Vietnam has one in San Francisco. Hanoi also signed a bilateral trade agreement with Washington in 2000.
Vietnam hosted the annual APEC gathering in November 2006, and then U.S. president George W. Bush, in addition to attending the meeting, met the Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi and visited Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s leading economic center.
Increasingly wary of China, Vietnam has also drawn closer to the U.S. in terms of defence.
China and Vietnam both claim the Paracel and Spratley island chains in the South China Sea, and in 1988 a naval battle close to the disputed islands left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead.
A Chinese maritime patrol boat struck a Vietnamese fishing boat Jan. 3 near the Paracel Islands; the Chinese confiscated its catch of fish along with fishing equipment.
Vietnam’s strategically located naval bases, such as the one at Cam Ranh Bay, could also serve as an American counterweight to China’s growing naval might. Under an agreement reached in 2003, Vietnam and the United States agreed to exchange alternate visits by their defence ministers every three years, and co-operation has proceeded at a gradual but steady pace.
The two countries now hold two annual high-level security meetings: the Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue and the Defence Policy Dialogue. In 2011, Hanoi and Washington also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defence Co-operation.
In July 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama hosted his counterpart, Truong Tan Sang, at the White House and the two presidents agreed to open a “new phase of bilateral relations.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced during a visit to Vietnam this past December that Vietnam will receive up to $18 million, including five fast patrol-boats that will be given to the Vietnamese Coast Guard, to protect its territorial waters and secure navigational freedom.
Vietnam might now well be the most pro-American country in Southeast Asia. Who could have imagined such a development forty years ago?
- Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.