Reconciliation among peoples is hard work. Just ask officials of Vietnam and the U.S. On July 11, the two countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. Working through the bitter legacy of their long war has taken that many years. Yet even though much mending is still to be done, Vietnam is now regarded as America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia and a major business partner.
The two have built up valuable trust by helping each other locate their missing soldiers and by jointly reducing the everyday damage from unexploded war ordnance and the American military’s use of Agent Orange. Further progress in their friendship, says Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, depends on “a mentality to let go of the past.”
One bonus of all this hard work is the people ties. Nearly 30,000 Vietnamese attend U.S. schools while more than 1,200 Americans study in Vietnam. For the first time, Hanoi has agreed to allow the Peace Corps to operate in the country. And the U.S. ambassador recently visited Vietnam’s cemeteries for its “war martyrs.”
This steady healing of the war’s aftermath is not the only reason for the closeness. The two are slowly forming a strategic partnership to counter China’s growing use of naval force against Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines over disputed islets, fisheries, and oil deposits in the South China Sea.
Vietnam is allowing more U.S. warships to visit its ports. And for the first time, the United States has taken the position that China’s claims to the South China Sea are “completely unlawful.” Washington may further help Vietnam beef up its maritime forces. Hanoi, meanwhile, is reportedly weighing whether to take Beijing to an international court over its persistent bullying tactics in Vietnamese waters.
Hanoi remains wary of being a close ally of any major power. And the U.S. hardly embraces the Communist Party’s suppression of dissent. Yet the two have squarely faced the pain of their history and are replacing it with lasting bonds. The U.S., for example, is now Vietnam’s biggest export market. The Trump administration has lauded Hanoi’s leadership in the region and its remarkable success in preventing COVID-19 deaths.
As the two keep working on the physical and moral legacies of the war, they are opening a future that few people imagined a few decades ago.