“It’s extraordinary considering we were bombing Vietnam,” says Frederick Brown, who was US consul-general in Danang in the early 1970s as war raged in Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies. “It’s something the US and Vietnam want to do. It’s a military-to-military relationship.”
Adding to the historical irony, the USS John McCain, a guided missile destroyer equipped with the latest aegis counter-missile system, is named for the grandfather and the father, both US Navy admirals, of US Senator John McCain, who was imprisoned in Hanoi for more than five years after his US Navy plane was shot down in the war.
The USS McCain called at the central Vietnam port of Danang on Aug. 10 for what were called "cultural visits" two days after Vietnamese officials were flown out to the aircraft carrier George Washington, a 97,000-ton behemoth cruising the waters in defiance of China's claims to the entire South China Sea.
The blossoming relationship between the US and Vietnam is all the more remarkable considering Vietnam’s relationship with neighboring China, its strongest ally during the Vietnam War. Vietnam now appears to want to balance one great power against another while China flexes its muscles around the Chinese mainland.
“I can only imagine the Chinese are not happy about it,” says Mr. Brown. “The Chinese with sharp elbows are trying to assert their claims.”
US and Chinese views collided last month when China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had staged “virtually an attack on China” after she told diplomats at the Association of South East Asian Nations in Hanoi that sovereignty was “a leading diplomatic priority.”
Those remarks provided diplomatic background noise to Chinese air and naval exercises in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands, a cluster of islets and reefs claimed in whole or part by Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, as well as China. And Vietnam has long protested China’s hold over the Paracel Islands, seized by Chinese forces from the old South Vietnamese army in 1974 and held since then by China.
“It's all shadow boxing,” says Carl Robinson, who spent years in Vietnam as a journalist and US aid worker and is now there leading lengthy tours of the country. “But the world does need to start paying more attention to those offshore islands and what's actually going on there.”
Vietnam's 'very clever stuff'
Mr. Robinson says Vietnam “as usual, is playing all sides just like it did during the war” when it relied on China and the Soviet Union, often at odds with one another, for arms. “It's very clever stuff,” he says, “and too bad it's taken this long for the Americans to wake up to playing the game too.”
While China was roiling waters in the South China Sea two weeks ago, the carrier George Washington was leading US and South Korean forces in northeast Asia – off the east coast of the Korean peninsula – in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in March in which 46 sailors were killed. China refuses to support the finding of a South Korean investigation in which experts from five other countries agreed North Korea sunk the ship with a torpedo fired from a midget submarine.
US-Korean exercises were originally planned for the peninsula's west coast, in the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan went down, but they were moved after China protested. China, anxious to assert its interests in the Yellow Sea, does not claim sovereignty over that large body of water but says US operations there would threaten the Chinese mainland.
It was after US-Korean exercises that the George Washington then sailed around the rim of east Asia to the South China Sea. The standoff from Southeast to Northeast Asia raises the whole question of how to face China’s rising military as well as economic power.
“You won’t find anyone saying we’re trying to ‘contain China,' " says Brown, who as a senior US diplomat coordinated with the former South Vietnamese government in battling communist forces from Hanoi, “and the last thing the Vietnamese want is to announce an alliance with the US.”
Nonetheless, Brown, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says. “We’re trying to resist China’s propensity to say, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine also.’”
So much have US and Vietnamese relations flourished in recent years that they’re negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement under which the US would provide fuel for nuclear energy plants in which US companies could invest. The US is now Vietnam’s second biggest trading partner after China with $15 billion in annual two-way trade, hugely balanced in favor of Vietnam exports to the US.
To Mark Fitzpatrick, a former proliferation expert at the State Department, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who last visited Vietnam late last year, it “makes eminent sense for the US and Vietnam to improve ties.” Although Vietnam’s economy” was overheating last year,” he says, “it remains one of the most dynamic, fast-growing economies of the world.”
And for Vietnam, “concerned about China’s territorial claims, past border disputes and growing assertiveness,” he adds, “the US is a natural and much-welcomed partner” as memories of the Vietnam War recede into “ancient history and both nations are inclined to look more to the future.”