All these decades after the Vietnam War, mentions of Hanoi or Saigon summon ghosts. That trauma will never be erased, but slowly, appropriately, it is being eased aside by the realities of a changing world.
So it is that President Barack Obama want to communist Vietnam this week on a visit that is more about the future than the past. And as much about countering the rise of China as reframing U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Obama was to visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). His trip is the third by an American president to Vietnam since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1995. Bill Clinton went in 2000; George W. Bush went in 2006. Vietnam, with a population of about 90 million, is now a significant American economic partner in Asia. Nike makes shoes there. McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Vietnam two years ago.
Trade and hamburgers – these are relatively easy ties to embrace, even between former enemies. But now the U.S. and Vietnam see reason to deepen their military relationship. Vietnam wants the United States to end a ban on arms sales, allowing it to shop for aircraft and other equipment. Obama reportedly is leaning toward a partial lift.
The U.S. Navy has its own request on the table: regular access to the port of Cam Ranh Bay. Does that name ring a bell? Trigger a flashback? The former U.S. Air Force and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay played a major role in U.S. military operations during the war. Service members started their tours of the war at Cam Ranh Bay, arriving by aircraft. The wounded were treated there.
But that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?
Vietnam and the United States have good reason to cooperate on defense issues because they are both concerned about the potential threat China poses. As China flexes its muscle in the Pacific, the U.S. has a duty to keep the peace by projecting power.
Vietnam, among other countries in the region, needs the U.S. to play the bodyguard and peacekeeper role. While Vietnam and China are communist states with tight economic ties, there is a well of mistrust between them that reaches back centuries. They fought a border war in 1979.
Over the last year, China has incited worry in its neighbors, including Vietnam, by enforcing territorial claims on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese are building artificial islands, turning several into military outposts and patrolling the area as if much of the open ocean between Vietnam and the Philippines belongs to them.
It doesn’t. These are international waters. The U.S. challenges China’s sovereignty claims by sailing and flying through the area. Last week, according to Pentagon reports, two Chinese fighter jets buzzed a Navy reconnaissance plane.
The dispute over control of the Spratlys involves multiple countries and is unlikely to be resolved easily. But Washington has to thwart Beijing’s power grab. The U.S. is tightening military ties with Philippines, another country entwined historically with America but also suspicious of China.
Getting closer to Vietnam and the Philippines is further evidence of America’s commitment to the Pacific region and its vital shipping lanes. The U.S. could supply Vietnam with patrol boats and other gear, and Cam Ranh Bay is in easy sailing distance to the Spratlys.
The hang-up in developing deeper ties with Vietnam is appearing to condone the authoritarian government’s poor human rights records. Elections there are a sham. Critics face harassment or detention. We trust the president will make that point. But the U.S. also can’t ignore the Chinese challenge, or a growing shared interest with Vietnam. History is forever, but time doesn’t stand still.