With all the drama surrounding the negotiations between Greece and the EU and between Iran and the United States, it is easy to overlook another diplomatic development — the official visit by Vietnam’s Communist Party leader to the White House. It is the first time Nguyen Phu Trong has set foot in the United States and it marks a kind of culmination in a remarkable story that has played out over 40 years.
Prior to World War II, few Americans had even heard of Vietnam, much less visited there. But as the Cold War took shape in the early 1950s, the Eisenhower administration became increasingly concerned about what was happening in what we then called Indochina. France was attempting to reestablish its colonial rule there but faced growing Vietnamese armed resistance under communist leadership. Washington had no sympathy for French colonial grandeur, but the prospect of a communist victory following the triumph of communism in China and the communist invasion of South Korea generated real alarm. The Kennedy administration inherited the problem and made the fateful decisions that led to America’s long and costly involvement in the Vietnam War.
The conclusion of that conflict in 1975 left the U.S. government and broader society with a heartfelt desire to have nothing more to do with Vietnam. Hanoi’s demands for postwar reparations were rejected and all relations effectively ended. But international politics has a human dimension and the personal connections between America and Vietnam slowly began to reassert themselves. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel served in Vietnam and some number of them just couldn’t let go. They wanted to go back and reconnect to old haunts and old comrades. And then there were all the “Amerasian” children left behind — most of whom wanted to come to the United States because they were treated as outcasts in Vietnam. Furthermore, there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese who fled the communist takeover and ended up in the United States. Many of their children, born in California or Virginia, wanted to rediscover the land their parents had left. Finally, there was the quintessentially American imperative to account for — and find the remains of — those military men who had disappeared while in combat.
Meanwhile, Vietnam in the 1980s was experiencing severe hardship as its attempt to impose a communist-style collective economy backfired. Similarly, Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of neighboring Cambodia became an albatross producing international sanctions and a 1979 attack by China designed to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” Vietnam needed a friend and an economic partner.
All of this impelled Hanoi and Washington to seek a new cooperative relationship, including formal diplomatic relations. Fittingly and remarkably, the first U.S. ambassador was a former POW of the Vietnamese, Pete Peterson. Peterson somehow survived six and a half years in a Vietnamese dungeon, sarcastically dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” One of his cellmates was another American pilot, John McCain — ow a Senator. The human side of the U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement was epitomized by Ambassador Peterson and by a small group of retired U.S. veterans of the war who have moved to Vietnam to live there. They highlight something that every American visitor to Vietnam feels; oddly enough, the Vietnamese really like Americans. In a recent poll, almost 90 percent of Vietnamese under age 30 view Americans “favorably.” More than 16,000 Vietnamese students are enrolled in American colleges and universities. Many Vietnamese officials, including the foreign minister, were educated in the United States.
Still, the process of “normalizing” relations has been constrained by political differences. Vietnam is an authoritarian communist state that imprisons those, like Buddhist clerics and democracy activists, it views as dangerous. This in turn has made Vietnam a target of criticism from American human rights groups and members of Congress. These concerns would, until recently, have ruled out a White House visit by Mr. Trong. But geopolitics has changed the equation.
The new factor is China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea — seizing atolls and reefs claimed by Southeast Asian countries (including Vietnam) and constructing military outposts to support further expansion. The process actually began in 1974 when China attacked a small Vietnamese garrison in the Paracels archipelago in the northern South China Sea and occupied the islands. More recently, China has seized Vietnamese fishing boats and harassed Vietnamese survey ships operating within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone along its coast. Last year China towed an oil drilling rig into the same zone in clear defiance of Vietnam’s legal rights under the Law of the Sea Convention signed by both China and Vietnam.
Vietnam’s great historical saga has been the 2,000-year struggle to escape domination by China. These recent events (including the 1979 invasion) have brought this long and contentious history to the forefront of Vietnamese thinking. If Hanoi is to have any realistic hope of preserving its autonomy in the face of rapidly growing Chinese power and ambition, it will need an equally powerful friend. And there is only one country that can fulfill that role. As for the United States, if it is going to successfully contest China’s ambition to control the South China Sea, it will need friends in the region who are willing to stand up to China. Put bluntly, the question in the Pentagon is whether any Southeast Asian country is ready and willing to assist the United States militarily against China. At this juncture, only Vietnam fits that description. So, Mr. Trong and President Obama will not lack for something to talk about.