Return to Vietnam

I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for the past week — my first trip to the country in more than a dozen years.  I had spent a lot of time there in the 1980s and ’90s, and wanted to see the changes underway.  My takeaway; the U.S. and Vietnam need to do more to build their nascent relationship.  Here’s my latest column for The Edge Review.
Copyright: The Edge Review
Burying the past
Vietnam, the U.S. have unique opportunity to build a future relationship
By KEITH B. RICHBURG / Ho Chi Minh City
A visit here to the War Remnants Museum — formerly called the Gallery of American War Crimes — in the re-named capital of the old South Vietnam provides a bracing reminder that for many older Vietnamese, the long conflict with the United States is a memory to be stoked and kept alive.
There are the countless photographs of deformed victims of the defoliant Agent Orange. There are the pictures of children with missing limbs who came across unexploded American ordinance. There are graphic, grainy photos of U.S. troops abusing captured Vietnamese prisoners – unsettling foreshadowing of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In one, an American soldier poses with a severed head. The captions on the exhibits contain constant references to American “crimes” and “aggression.”
But on the bustling, motorbike-jammed streets outside, the museum and its one-sided view of the war seem increasingly anachronistic. The war ended nearly 40 years ago and is for many here ancient history. The displays of anti-American propaganda seem evermore disconnected from the vibrant, thriving city Saigon has become.
New buildings are changing the city’s skyline — soaring office blocks and modern apartment complexes, such as the elegant Saigon Pearl along the banks of the Saigon River. Citibank ATM machines and trendy new restaurants are ubiquitous. And in front of the old Rex Hotel, where American military commanders gave daily briefings that strained credulity and became known as the “Five O’clock Follies,” the entire area is being ripped up for a new US$1.1 billion subway system. The first line, due to open by 2017, will shuttle passengers from the Ben Thanh market for 20 kilometres.
Tourists may still come here to see the old tunnels that funneled weapons from the North to the Viet Cong guerrillas, or to see where the first North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in 1975.  But for most Vietnamese, the war is just that — a tourist moneymaker. The Communist Party may want to keep alive memories of U.S. “war crimes,” but young Vietnamese want to go study at American universities.
Those were my impressions after a weeklong trip to a country I had visited countless times during the 1980s and 1990s as a correspondent, but where I have not been in the last 14 years.  Much in Ho Chi Minh City remains familiar to me — the old haunts like Apocalypse Now, the bustling market, the tourist traps along Dong Khoi Street. But what struck me most was the dynamism, and the obvious newfound affluence. There are now luxury boutiques all over the city center; there are also McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs.
The U.S. has a strong presence here now — but it can and should be even stronger. Relations between Washington and Hanoi were only normalized in 1995, and there’s still a lot of room for deepening the nascent ties — business, military, educational and cultural.
The biggest concern for Vietnam these days is China and its increasing assertiveness in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, known here as the East Sea. Tensions between the two countries ratcheted up for 75 days from May to July, when China positioned a US$1 billion oil exploration rig deep inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The rig was later withdrawn, but not before China ramped up its blatantly aggressive move by ramming and buzzing Vietnamese ships that came nearby. Vietnam has also accused China of harassing its fishermen.
That dispute with China presents the U.S. with a golden opportunity to intensify its own ties with Vietnam.
One start would be to begin the gradual lifting of the outdated embargo on lethal aid to Vietnam — something that’s receiving rare bipartisan support in Washington. That should have already been done before the dysfunctional U.S. Congress headed home to campaign for November’s elections. Now there are reports it could happen before the end of this year.
Easing the lethal arms embargo rightly elicits concern from the human rights community, worried about the image it would project of rewarding a country that jails dissidents and bloggers and restricts religious freedom. But it can be done in a smart way, tied to the Vietnamese government’s progress on releasing political prisoners.
To begin with, the assets the country needs to fend off a resurgent China would be initially restricted to things like patrol boats, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities and strengthening the Coast Guard — none of which are likely to be useful for crushing internal dissent. The Reuters news agency reported from Washington that the first item on the for-sale list could be unarmed P-3 surveillance planes.
Beyond easing the embargo, the U.S. needs to start thinking about conducting joint military exercises with Vietnam, and opening U.S. military academies to Vietnamese officers — something U.S. Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam War POW and Republican presidential candidate, suggested during his trip to Hanoi in August.
The other thing the U.S. Senate needs to do right away is confirm Ted Osius as the new U.S. ambassador to Hanoi.  President Barack Obama named Osius, a career foreign service officer, to the post in May, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent his nomination to the full Senate in June. Since then, the nomination, like a raft of other Obama appointees, has been stalled in legislative gridlock, with Republicans intent on blocking anything Obama proposes by refusing to allow an up-or-down vote.
The last U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, David B. Shear, left as scheduled in August, and while Osius’ nomination languishes in Washington, the U.S. Embassy is being run by the charge d’affaires. The situation is beyond ludicrous. The U.S. needs a full time ambassador in Vietnam now.
On the economic side, the U.S. has emerged in the last two decades as Vietnam’s seventh largest foreign investor, with some US$11 billion invested in 700-odd projects since diplomatic ties were established. But U.S. businesses still lag far behind the South Koreans Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese, the largest foreign investors here.
And again, there’s room for enhanced ties at China’s expense. The Middle Kingdom is becoming a much more difficult place for foreign companies to conduct business — in some cases, the environment in China is openly hostile. Wages and prices are rising, making China not such a good deal. Vietnam, with a population of 90 million and with low costs and abundant labour, looks like a bargain by comparison. American companies need to consider shifting more operations here.
The Obama administration also needs to push ahead to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the free trade agreement that could help bolster Vietnam’s export-dependent economy in the case China tries to retaliate against Hanoi by cutting cross-border trade.
The U.S. also needs to keep educating some of Vietnam’s best and brightest. There are now around 500 Vietnamese who have returned to the country after studying in the U.S. as Fulbright Scholars, and they include top people in the government, the Communist Party and at least one Politburo member. These are people moving into key leadership positions — just as the old generation of bureaucrats trained in the Soviet Union and Eastern European are dying off or approaching retirement.
The U.S. has another powerful tool to help build a new relationship with Vietnam — the 1.5 million Vietnamese immigrants, the Viet Kieu — many of them the children of those who left during the fall of Saigon. With their American degrees and training, many Viet Kieu are now heading back to their ancestral home to grab a stake in this dynamic economy —and they provide a cultural and linguistic bridge between the two countries.
Political reform? What better way to promote positive change in Vietnam than by training the next generation of government leaders and military officers, making their military interoperable with America’s, and inundating the county with more American products and services?
It’s time finally to relegate the Vietnam War to where it belongs — the history books and museums. Let’s get on with building what seems to me like a natural partnership for the future.