Saturday, July 12, 2014
Winning Hearts and Minds: Is Napalm Better than Public Diplomacy?
Vietnam’s Overdue Alliance With America
By TUONG LAI JULY 11, 2014, New York Times
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — OURS is a small country. We Vietnamese cannot and must not entrust our future to anyone, but we urgently need strategic allies at a moment in history when our priority is to defeat our present-day enemy: China.
China’s move in May, to place an offshore oil rig on the Vietnamese continental shelf, and its arrogant statements in June, at an Asian security summit meeting known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, exposed China’s sea piracy to the world. These developments should alarm anyone in Vietnam who still clings to the myth of brotherly love between our nation and China.
We cannot fight Chinese encroachment alone. Political isolation in a globalized world is tantamount to committing political suicide for Vietnam. And the key ally for Vietnam today is the United States — an alliance that the Vietnamese liberation hero Ho Chi Minh ironically always wanted.
The Vietnamese people have fought for thousands of years to maintain our culture and independence, in the shadow of a giant neighbor. But continuing blindness and stupidity have poisoned generations of Vietnamese leaders, even when their Chinese “comrades” blatantly started a border war in 1979 and invaded and occupied the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Spratly Islands in 1988 — which for centuries both belonged to Vietnam. After the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Vietnamese leaders tried to protect Communism from an embarrassing demise in Southeast Asia. At a now-infamous meeting in Chengdu, China, in 1990, Vietnamese leaders signed agreements that made our country even more dependent on China — a betrayal of our interests and a national shame.
For personal gain, some Vietnamese have even become traitors, blindly toeing the Chinese line. They are reminiscent of the reviled 18th-century king Le Chieu Thong, the last ruler of the Le Dynasty, who died in exile in China. But the cowardice of Vietnamese leaders has never been so blatant as in the past 25 years. Vietnam’s government has put a so-called communist-socialist bond with China above national interests and the well-being of its citizens. Our leaders have regarded invaders as friends.
Because of China’s recent territorial grabs at sea and its complete disregard for international law, we are now back to square one. Without a major strategic realignment, Vietnam’s island territories will simply be gobbled up by China. Our country must dispose of the myth of friendship with China and return to what Ho Chi Minh passionately advocated after World War II: an American-Vietnamese alliance in Asia.
Ho’s sympathies with the United States and its platform of self-determination for all peoples went as far back as the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. Beginning in World War II, the Americans were the only foreign army to fight by Ho’s side against fascism in Indochina; the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) helped to train and set up the first Vietnamese-American guerrilla unit at the end of 1944.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Ho’s inaugural address, when he declared the creation of an independent Vietnam in September 1945, referred to America’s Declaration of Independence. He saw the noble values of democracy, freedom, equality and justice as the most important guiding principles for Vietnam.
In a series of eight letters and telegrams to President Harry S. Truman, and three to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1945-46, Ho denounced French colonialism and clearly stated “our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the United States” and expressed the Vietnamese people’s admiration for “the American people whose fine stand for the noble ideals of international Justice and Humanity, and whose modern technical achievements have so strongly appealed to them.”
Regrettably, most of his letters were ignored. History is littered with many such missed opportunities. In this case, there were disastrous consequences.
When young Americans aimed their weapons at Vietnamese in a little country on the other side of the Pacific, they did it in the belief that it was their duty to stop the “red wave.” On the Vietnamese side, young men and women sacrificed their lives fearlessly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail with guns and tanks provided by the Soviet Union and China — our so-called dear socialist brothers. But tragedies usually begin with misguided ideology and illusions of friendship. A peace treaty with the Soviet Union, signed in 1978, did little to help Vietnam during its border war in 1979 with China.
The fundamental issue facing Vietnam today is to choose the right strategic partners. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and other smaller Asian nations offer good case studies. American atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but postwar Japan still chose the United States as its key ally and economic partner and adopted core American values as its guiding principles.
In terms of economic and social development, the choice between the model of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore and that of North Korea, Cuba and Laos is abundantly clear.
The Chinese government’s hypocrisy and double-dealing are well known and well documented. As our prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, recently put it bluntly: “Vietnam has always wanted peace and friendship with China. However, we cannot trade our sacred independence and sovereignty for some elusive peace or any type of dependence.” His strong words heralded a new way of dealing with China. But much more is needed.
Vietnamese leaders need to move decisively by taking claims against China before international courts and once and for all relegating the idea of an ideological bond with China to the dustbin of history. Vietnam must fully implement and follow the true spirit of Ho’s Declaration of Independence in 1945. And that means finally establishing the sort of close economic and military relations with the United States that Ho had wanted after World War II.
That is the only way to defeat the new Chinese expansionism propelled by its president, Xi Jinping, and for Vietnam to join the rest of the civilized world, with its ideals of democracy, freedom and justice for all.
A sociologist, also known as Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, and a former adviser to two Vietnamese prime ministers.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 13, 2014, on page SR4 of the National edition with the headline: Vietnam’s Overdue Alliance With America.