|South China Morning Post
July 27, 2010 Tuesday
This column is about the US and Vietnam. Ultimately that means it's about China, too. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's move to involve Washington in resolving South China Sea disputes illuminates the fact that a delicate US-Vietnam courtship has been getting decidedly hotter.
While that courtship serves US strategic interests, it also suggests that Washington has isolated a potential Chinese vulnerability. Regional diplomats and analysts have increasingly viewed Vietnam as the Southeast Asian nation most determined to stand up to Beijing. Significantly, independent scholars also believe its territorial claims in the southern part of the South China Sea are far stronger than Beijing's.
When China's threats against US oil giant ExxonMobil over its exploration deal in waters off Vietnam's southern tip emerged two years ago, Australian-based South China Sea specialist Dr Carl Thayer warned that Vietnam's sovereignty was at risk. Thayer's warnings resonated in Washington, and around Southeast Asia.
China, it seemed, had overplayed what had been an impressive hand in Southeast Asia.
Shortly before news broke of months of discreet threats against ExxonMobil, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited then US president George W. Bush in the White House. Intriguingly, he also became the first modern Vietnamese premier to visit the Pentagon. A little-noticed joint statement noted US support for Vietnam's "national sovereignty", as well as the usual references to security and territorial integrity. Since then, the military relationship has intensified, with a variety of visits and talks. An agreement that sees US ships routinely serviced in Vietnamese ports - something generally performed by friends and allies - is a possibility.
It is important to remember just how far this relationship has evolved. Only 20 years ago, there were few more embittered and poisonous relationships. A particularly vicious 10-year war that ended with Washington's panicked retreat from Saigon in 1975 was followed by an economic embargo that crippled a reunified Vietnam for 20 more years, and pushed Hanoi even closer to Moscow. Even when relations were eventually normalised, in July 1995, the official suspicion and mistrust were palpable, whatever the remarkable goodwill among ordinary Americans and Vietnamese. Communist Party conservatives would rail about the fact that Vietnam was forced to pay back US loans credited to the long-dead government of South Vietnam, or warn of CIA agents roaming Vietnam's mountains disguised as backpackers. It was weeks, meanwhile, before US officials flew their flag above their new liaison office, and they complained of interference in basic diplomatic functions.
Those days seemed light-years away as Clinton arrived to mark the 15 years that have seen the US become one of Vietnam's biggest foreign investors. Any sticking points, such as human rights, were firmly in the background. Yet, for all the good vibes and shared interests, US officials know they can't overplay their own hand.
Vietnam's years as a pariah state gave its strategists time to weigh the importance of an internationalist foreign policy, of having a range of friendships without being beholden to any one power. Just as it wants to hedge its inevitably important fraternal friendship with Beijing, it is hard to imagine Vietnam ever being a formal US ally. That complexity, and Hanoi's even longer history of war and mistrust with Beijing, can give Vietnam's manoeuvres a decidedly bipolar edge.
Hanoi's state press revealed those dilemmas last Friday. Prominence was given to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi meeting with Vietnam's party chief Nong Duc Manh. Beneath was a photo of Clinton meeting Premier Dung. Asean efforts, he said, "together with the contribution from the US, would ? guarantee regional security". It was a statement barely conceivable just a few years ago.
Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia