The Vietnam War is a stain upon the fabric of recent human history. This bloody and violent conflict, fought on the premise of conflicting ideals and against the intangible boogeyman of Marx and Engels, resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million Vietnamese, the majority of which were civilian casualties. It has likewise led to the diaspora of more than 2 million other Vietnamese people and to the initial political and economic isolation of Vietnam from the rest of the world.
Nearly five decades after the end of the fighting, the scars of the conflict still remain fresh in the eyes of those who lived through the war. For those fortunate enough to have been born after the war, these scars are but whispers at the back of their minds – almost silent and unobtrusive.
However, these scars are always lingering somewhere in the corner of their minds. One would assume that both parties to the fighting, Vietnam and the United States, would have deep-seated animosity towards each other due to their entanglement in this conflict. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Diplomatic and economic ties between the US and Vietnam were reestablished in 1995, just two decades after the end of the Vietnam War.
A report by the US Congressional Research Service, published on February 16, 2021, details several key components regarding current US-Vietnam relations. To date, the United States is Vietnam’s 2nd largest trading partner, only trailing behind China. Growing Chinese hegemony in the region has also led to stronger bonds between the US and Vietnam in matters of security and sovereignty.
While it appears that the connection between these two nations is forged out of practicality and necessity more than anything else, with the United States needing allies in the Southeast Asian frontier and with Vietnam needing the commerce and trade to strengthen its economy, the two countries have been able to create and maintain several mutually beneficial arrangements with each other, despite their shared and bloody history of fighting and conflict.
Yet, there still remain several issues which continue to hinder these relations from developing at a much quicker pace. One is the uneasy three-way tension among the United States, Vietnam, and China.
China, as mentioned earlier, continues to remain Vietnam’s number one partner in trade. Likewise, both countries share similar political systems, which the US Congressional report stated provides “a party-to-party channel for communication” and also contributes to “often similar official world-views.” Being two of only a handful of nations led by Communist parties, there is a strange sense of kinship and familiarity that exists between the two sides. However, recent events have put a drastic strain on Sino-Vietnamese relations as well.
For more than a decade, China has been claiming most of the South China Sea as part of its sovereign jurisdiction using its controversial and fraudulent Nine-Dash Line myth to support its expansion. It has also been illegally encroaching into the territories of Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian nations for its own personal gain.
Mainland China has harassed and sunk many maritime vessels from several Southeast Asian countries, illegally harvested fish and other natural resources from these contested waters, and has been building several artificial islands to solidify its hold in this corner of the world. The Mainland’s aggressive, bullish, egoistic, and selfish actions have not only negatively impacted the people and governments of Southeast Asia, but have also caused drastic and irreparable damage to the environment.
In response, Vietnam has made several international protests regarding China’s actions and has also increased its visibility in the region by expanding its offshore energy exploration program and by implementing its own land reclamation projects. It has also fostered better relations with other maritime powers such as Japan, India, and, of course, the United States, in an attempt to intimidate China and force it to rethink some of its expansionist policies and actions.
Because of the increased security collaboration between the US and Vietnam, the Obama administration removed all restrictions on selling Vietnam lethal weapons in 2016. Donald Trump’s presidency continued this show of goodwill by providing Vietnam with 24 new coast guard patrol vessels, aerial drones, coastal radar, and two decommissioned US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters.
Yet, Vietnam rarely joins the United States in undertaking large scale diplomatic actions without taking into consideration how China will react. Vietnam’s protests against the Mainland regarding the South China Sea also seem to have minimal effect in the region; in fact, China’s presence has even increased in recent years.
Despite the tangible support of the United States and the backing of most of the international community, Vietnam’s condemnations and actions have merely been a form of lip service: all bark and no bite. The Vietnamese government’s crackdown on those critical of its policies against China isn’t doing it any favors either.
In effect, Vietnam finds itself in a bind and is caught between the whims and desires of two irreconcilable world powers.
On the one hand, you have the United States: a significant trading partner with links to the rest of the free world, but also the cause of much destruction and death in Vietnam’s recent history. On the other, you have China: Vietnam’s largest trading partner and a source of much revenue for the government, but whose expansionist policies are currently threatening and challenging its sovereignty.
At the moment, Vietnam seems content to play both world powers off against each other in an attempt to squeeze as many benefits as it can from the United States and China. However, the longer the Vietnamese government tries to appease both sides, the more it stands to lose in the long run; the longer Vietnam wears the mantle of neutrality and passivity, the more citizens that will lose faith and trust in the Party. And a government without the backing and support of its citizens, is a complete and utter failure.
So, should Vietnam pick a side? Should it finally choose between Uncle Sam and Chairman Mao? Is Vietnam even currently in a position to make such a polarizing decision?
Granted, the economic backlash of this choice has the potential to be quite severe; cutting ties with either your first or second largest trading partner is more than enough to destabilize Vietnam’s growing economy. There is little to no guarantee that China will stop expanding into contested waters if Vietnam decides to fully comply with all of China’s demands. There is also no telling what the United States will do either. With so many variables to consider and so many unknowns, perhaps the most prudent and wisest decision would be to maintain the status quo.
The answers to these questions may best be left to economists and experts and we will only know in retrospect if Vietnam ends up making the right decision.
Ultimately, what will be scrutinized and criticized by believers in democratic ideals is whether or not the Vietnamese government has acted in accordance with the whims and desires of its citizens. Yet, the Human Rights Group reported that given Vietnam’s track record of silencing dissent, its foray into the mass surveillance of its citizens, and other abuses, this remains extremely doubtful.
Whatever the Vietnamese government decides to do regarding the enemy of its past and the enemy of its present will no doubt benefit the Party first, with the country and its people being merely afterthoughts in the Party’s grand scheme. And perhaps this is the greatest tragedy of it all.