Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang has held talks with Barack Obama at the White House in only the second such meeting since the restoration of US-Vietnamese ties in 1995. Whilst Mr Obama acknowledged the “extraordinarily complex” history between the two states, there is genuine belief that bilateral relations are entering a new era.
Nobody will forget the Vietnam War. Those that fought in it experienced some of the harshest battle conditions known to man. Even those born some time after the American withdrawal will be imbued with a sense of its importance thanks to modern education curriculums and Hollywood movies. It is a war that cannot and should not be forgotten.
That said, historical enmity should not be a barrier to future development. America has been particularly impressive in following this mantra. It is hard to imagine today what bitter enemies the US and Japan were during WWII, such are their economic and cultural similarities today. Whilst Japan’s neighbours like China and Korea continue to raise the spectre of WWII to sour relations with the island nation, the US has quickly moved on.
This in no way diminishes the sacrifice made by the thousands of American soldiers who died at the hands of the Japanese, some in the most barbarous manner. It is a pragmatic step to ensuring such suffering does not occur again.
America must now pursue a similar policy with Vietnam and looks set to do so. Talks of a Trans-Pacific Partnership, offering a raft of potential trade agreements, are already at advanced levels. Military cooperation and American weapons sales to Vietnam cannot be ruled out.
There is a strategic value in these negotiations. Hanoi has shown signs in recent years that it is prepared to drift away from its overbearing neighbour, China, which is now firmly established as America’s biggest global ‘rival’. Vietnam is heavily-dependent on the Chinese economy and has the CCP to thank for its support of Ho Chi Minh during both the overthrow of French colonial rule and the subsequent war with America.
However, Beijing has always been quick to use historical blackmail to get what it wants. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain a predominant concern of the Vietnamese, yet China refuses to cede ground and has shown itself prepared to use force to get what it wants. It is accused of dictating policy towards its neighbours, knowing they cannot afford to become economically isolated from the ‘world’s workshop’.
Similarly, as the traditional communist ideology wanes in both countries, there is no longer such a strong symbolic link between China and Vietnam. Their leaders no longer see themselves fighting a shared battle against the evil forces of global capitalism. Both are, in essence, capitalist countries, albeit with significant state involvement in the economy.
With the US ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific, Vietnam could join a list of American allies in the region that already includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, all of which would rather lessen than strengthen their increasingly unbalanced economic and political ties with China.
Were the US to solidify a trade agreement with Vietnam, it could potentially open up an avenue for joint energy exploration in the South China Sea, something that would rile China yet possibly internationalise a dispute that is in desperate need of mediation.
Furthermore, with American weapons systems already in place in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, Vietnam could be the latest country to join the ballistic missile defence shield that projects American power far beyond its borders.
Behind the symbolic pledges of forgiveness and reconciliation lies an unprecedented opportunity for two nations whose war wounds have yet to heal. It is essential to the memory of the fallen that their leaders seize the chance with both hands.