The US government's landmark decision to clean up the herbicide Agent Orange – some 50 years after it was first used to defoliate Vietnam's jungle during the Vietnam War – is yet another indicator that Washington is committed to fostering positive relations with its one-time foe, analysts say.
The clean-up is well-timed: The US is looking to increase its presence in the Asia Pacific region economically, diplomatically, and militarily. At the same time, relations in the Pacific are particularly strained, not least between China and Vietnam. Anti-Beijing protests have racked Hanoi's streets for the past five weeks as the two nations go head-to-head over claims in the South China Sea, an area of vast oil, gas, and mineral wealth to which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan all also lay partial claim. The subject caused considerable controversy at last month's Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, where foreign ministers disagreed over how to resolve the longstanding issue.
So it is perhaps a softening of blows to have the US finally extend its help in an on-the-ground cleanup after decades of questioning the claim that the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange dumped across Vietnam during the war caused adverse health effects in Vietnamese citizens. The joint project with Vietnam will cost $43 million, and is expected to take four years.
US Ambassador David Shear described the removing of the chemical dioxin from the former US airbase in Danang, central Vietnam, where it was long stored, as "the first steps [in] bury[ing] the legacies of our past" and indicated that a subsequent 47-acres clean up may also include Bien Hoa air base in southern Vietnam, another Agent Orange hotspot.
Ambassador Shear's comments help bolster recent statements made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both recently visited Vietnam, and both underlined America's desire to foster stronger ties with the southeast Asian nation.
Ms. Clinton's comments were aimed at boosting diplomatic and economic ties. She commended the significant $22 billion bilateral trade between Vietnam and the US in 2011, up $1 billion from just 2001. She also praised "Vietnam's contribution to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and the reduction of tensions in the South China Sea."
Panetta's visit to the former US naval base Cam Ranh Bay was diplomatically and militarily strategic. The majority of the US Navy will be in the Asia Pacific region by 2020, going from 50/50 Pacific/Atlantic today to 60/40 Pacific Atlantic – and the US wants Vietnam to be a key player in that move, he said.
"The US and Vietnam are set to take their bilateral ties to new heights," Panetta told a group of journalists at Cam Ranh Bay in June. "It is very important that we be able to protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea."
Each of these recent developments may very well be part of what Vietnam expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Academy calls "strategic signaling" by the US to dance closely, but not too closely, with its rival China.
"The US doesn't want to get entrapped in taking sides in a territorial dispute," Mr. Thayer explains, referring to China and Vietnam's joint claims to the South China Sea. "If the US takes the lead too much, it'll be seen as part of the problem. It'll never been seen in good faith [but rather as] containing China, bullying China; pissed off because it can't stop China's rise and the American economy's in a bad way."
Vietnam, says Thayer, will not side with the US or China, but maintain its independence while being fully aware of both the political and military machinations going on in the background.
For Vietnam, this is all part of the political dance.
Major General Le Van Cuong, the former chief of the Stategy Institute in Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security, indicated as much when recently pressed on Panetta's visit to Cam Ranh Bay.
"From a strategic viewpoint, I think it's normal, like: You want to eat, because your body feels hungry," Le Van Cuong told the Tuoi Tre News.
"Any leader visiting a foreign country has his own interests. I'm pretty sure that the US Defence Secretary has an interest in Cam Ranh Bay."