Tag Archives: Vietnam military

Vietnam’s Stark Choice: East or West

For decades, Vietnam has walked a tightrope between East and West, as Communist Party factions jostled over whether to align more with China or more with the US.  China’s latest aggression in the East/South China Sea escalates the skill challenge — and may even threaten the survival of Vietnam’s ruling acrobats.

Although Vietnam has an ugly history with both countries, the pro-China faction has generally prevailed in Vietnam’s government.  Vietnam has evolved as a Chinese-style state-controlled capitalistic autocracy.  China has been allowed to exploit Vietnamese natural resources.  China dominates trade between the two countries.  And China even gets favorable treatment in Vietnam’s schools that teach about the horrors of the American War but gloss over (or don’t mention) the more recent border war of Chinese aggression.

But there’s evidence this week that the dynamic may be changing.  The Chinese embassy in Hanoi was the setting for the largest anti-China protests in recent history, and the Vietnamese government permitted it.  Vietnamese officials worldwide have been loudly protesting China’s contention that it owns the South China and all the resources within it — and Vietnam’s diplomats have been working overtime to line up supporters, including the US.

Meanwhile, China may not be the biggest problem the ruling party faces in Vietnam.  A bigger problem may be its own citizenry: nearly 100 million mostly young, restless, entrepreneurial people who are increasingly enamored of Western culture, products, and political ideas.  Many of them are highly educated, blogging, Facebook-users who are watching closely to see whether their government is capable of handling China.




A Parallel Between Vietnam and Ukraine

One of the consequences of today’s crisis in Eastern Europe is the escalation of anxieties elsewhere in the world.  The situation in Ukraine has reverberated at least two ways in faraway Vietnam: (1) disrupting economic stability, and (2) raising the spectre of armed conflict in Southeast Asia.    

Vietnam’s stock market, world’s best performing in the first part of 2014, has been in a nosedive since the Ukraine crisis.  That’s partly because of conflicting views within Vietnam’s ruling party about economic health of the country; but it also reflects concern about both fragile export markets in Europe and the reliability of Russia as a long-time economic and diplomatic ally.  

Meanwhile,  people who have been watching developments in the South China Sea are wondering if Vietnam is on a path to become China’s Ukraine.  That’s not surprising considering the centuries of Chinese aggression toward its southern neighbor.

The latest Chinese assertiveness is its construction of an oil and gas exploration rig near the Vietnamese coast in South China (or East) Sea territory claimed by both nations.  State-owned PetroVietnam asked China National Offshore Oil Corp. to remove the rig — situated 120 miles East of the Vietnamese coast and within what Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone.  China responded by repeatedly ramming Vietnamese military boats.

Until now, conflict between China and Vietnam in the sea has been limited mostly to verbal sparring over who owns the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and  Chinese harassment of Vietnamese fishing fleets.

The latest dispute highlights the increasing potential for military aggression in Vietnam’s East Sea, as Southeast Asia worries about parallels between Eastern Europe and its own region of 600 million people.

Vietnam Maps the World’s Most Dangerous Sea

Vietnam’s legislature  is considering imposing a $2,400 fine on anybody who makes a map of the country that omits two island groups in the East Sea.  That’s because several other countries claim they own some or (in China’s case) all of them.  ASEAN countries are meeting in Brunei this week to try to cool down the dispute.

The hotly contested islands are potentially rich in resources and near key shipping lanes — and that puts them on the world map as a dangerous region that seems to be moving toward a military flash point.

China claims it owns the entire South China Sea and everything in it, including the Spratleys and the Paracels.  Vietnam maps label the islands Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, respectively, and position them in Bien Dong, which (with the proper markings) means East Sea.

Maps have power.  Centuries ago, cartographers gave China the upper hand in claiming the disputed islands when they put the name of its country on maps of Southeast Asia’s Sea; today the name South China Sea dominates globes in the Western world.

Understandably, Vietnam (not to mention the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and other countries) wants to change perception.  But regulating map-making is a clunky way to do so — for a very practical reason:  Including the Spratleys and Parcels makes Vietnam look much smaller than it is — an S-shaped strip in the upper left corner of the page.

The proposed law change, which actually would increase the fine from $50 to $2,500, apparently was inspired by discovery in a hotel last August of 11 smuggled made-in-China maps showing what Vietnam regards as incorrect boundary lines for Vietnam and neighboring China, Laos, and Cambodia.

The map caper would seem trivial it if weren’t emblematic of one of the most serious territorial disputes in the world today.  That’s why it is high on ASEAN agenda this week in Brunei, where ASEAN nations are trying to negotiate a Code of Conduct in the world’s most populous region.

Meanwhile, China is aggressively pursuing its claims — opening the largest Paracel island to tourism; expanding its military presence; and disrupting fishing and natural resource exploration.

Meanwhile, if you want a good map of Vietnam, buy it in Singapore or Taiwan.

Vietnam’s Tired Anti-American Propaganda

CBS started a controversy last weekend when it sent Amazing Race contestants to the B-52 wreckage in Hanoi that celebrates Vietnam’s triumph over US imperialism 40 years ago.  The American Legion said the episode promoted communist propaganda and disrespected Vietnam veterans, especially the men who were shot down in the aircraft decades ago.

But there’s an irony here.  Even as the wreckage memorializes the defeat of the USA, history shows the Americans achieved their central goal there: economic freedom.

CBS showcased one of Vietnam's ugliest sights
CBS showcased one of Vietnam’s ugliest sights

Vietnam is governed by a Communist Party that doesn’t tolerate much criticism, but free enterprise, more than communism, rules the economy.  And the cold-warriors that aimed to stop the spread of communism at the China border prevailed in the end.

Today, Western tourists who visit Vietnam’s many war memorials and museums subject themselves to intense propaganda.  These sites and the high school history books demonize Americans and glorify the Communist victors.  But the message is as obsolete as the wrecked aircraft that serves as its emblem.

In fact, Vietnamese people for the most part worship American culture and technology.  As a whole, they crave the fruits of free enterprize.  Diplomatic, and even military, relations between Vietnam and the US are warm and getting warmer.

I hope Vietnam’s leaders consider getting rid of — or at least toning down — the tired, hostile propaganda the permeates their otherwise spectacularly promising country.  What purpose does it serve to provide CBS with war wreckage as a backdrop when the network should be showcasing world-class art, wildlife, cuisine, temples, commerce, and beaches?

As for CBS, here are places the network could visit to showcase the Vietnam of today — Vietnam slide show — and if the network insists on the war theme, the site pictured below would be more appropriate.  It’s one of scores of cemeteries for Vietnamese war veterans, this one in the central highlands city of Buon Me Thuot.

Powershot 1360


Revisiting the Wounds of War in Vietnam

Many first-time American travelers to Vietnam are surprised when their hosts welcome them without a hint of resentment lingering from events 40 and 50 years ago.  To older Americans, especially, the Vietnamese seem to have short memories and a remarkable capacity to focus on the present.

Even so, potential Vietnam investors may benefit from reading two remarkable new publications — a book and the op-ed opinion piece below — to avoid letting the 50-year-old Vietnam/American War hinder their business relationships in one of the world’s most dynamic frontier markets.

The op-ed piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday of this week and was written by John McCain — who may have a deeper understanding  than any other American how far US-Vietnamese relations have come since he was released as a prisoner of war in Hanoi exactly 40 years ago.

The book that has been gaining attention is Nick Turse’s grim account of the American conduct toward civilians during the Vietnam War.  It’s a story that is hard to read because it has been buried, unacknowledged, in the American subconscious.  Like a painful memory of childhood, the story Turse documented has haunted our culture for the past half century.

In the conclusion of his book Kill Anything That Moves, Turse observes: ‘The true history of the Vietnamese civilian suffering does not fit comfortably into America’s preferred postwar narrative — the tale of a conflict nobly fought by responsible commanders and good American boys, who should not be tainted by the occasional mistakes of a few bad apples in their midst.  Still, this is hardly an excuse for averting our eyes from the truth.”

Today, an American investor acknowledging the past may be better prepared to earn the trust of his Vietnamese counterpart.

For his part, McCain recounts how he has come to admire and respect Vietnam and the Vietnamese over the years since he was released after five intense years in prison.

Here’s the remarkable article that appeared in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal by John McCain:


Forty years ago on March 14, my fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam and I, dressed in cheap civilian clothes that had been provided to the 108 of us for the occasion, boarded buses for Gia Lam airport on the outskirts of Hanoi. A big green American C-141 airlifter was waiting there to fly us to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

At the airport, we lined up in formation according to our shoot-down date, and we tried to maintain a military bearing as cameras whirred and clicked and a noisy crowd of Vietnamese observed us. American and Vietnamese officers sat at a table, each holding a list of prisoners.

When it was time for a prisoner to step forward, representatives from both militaries called out his name. They called my name, and I took a few steps toward the table and saluted. A U.S. naval officer returned my salute, smiled and shook my hand, and escorted me across the tarmac and up the ramp into the plane.

I made the trip with two of my closest friends, Air Force officers Bud Day and Bob Craner, whose example and encouragement I had relied on for over five years. A few minutes into the flight, the pilot announced that we were “feet wet,” which meant we were now flying over the Tonkin Gulf and were in international air space. Everyone cheered.

I doubt that any of us expected we would ever return to the country we had yearned to leave for so long. It was hard to say goodbye to each other at Clark, and our farewells were very emotional.

We made promises to stay in frequent contact, which we would do over the years, until death began to thin our ranks. There were no mixed emotions, however, as we took our leave of Vietnam, and no desire to renew the acquaintance in the future.

As it turned out, I would return to Vietnam. I’ve been back many times since the end of the war. It’s a beautiful country, and the Vietnamese are welcoming hosts. Most of my visits have been for official business: accounting for American POW/MIAs, helping to facilitate the normalization of relations between our countries, and promoting a future relationship that will serve both countries’ interests.

I’ve made friendships with people who were once my enemies. I’ve become fond of a place I once detested. I am pleased that America and Vietnam have made so much progress in building a productive, mutually beneficial relationship in the wreckage of a war that was a tragedy for both our peoples.

Today, old grievances are being replaced by new hopes. Increasing numbers of Americans visit Vietnam every year—including three U.S. presidents while in office—drawn to the country’s spectacular natural beauty and friendly people. Bilateral trade is more than 80 times greater than it was in 1994, when the U.S. lifted its trade embargo. This has benefited the people of both countries and enabled millions of Vietnamese to lift themselves out of poverty.

Similarly, the two countries’ defense relationship has evolved to an extent that was simply unimaginable even a decade ago. Our militaries exercise together, and Cam Ranh Bay is again a port of call for the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the USS John McCain, a Navy destroyer named after my father and grandfather, recently made a port visit into Danang, which shows that if you live long enough, anything is possible.

And yet, when it comes to the values that Americans hold dear—freedom, human rights and the rule of law—our highest hopes for Vietnam still remain largely just hopes. The government in Hanoi still imprisons and mistreats peaceful dissidents, journalists, bloggers, and ethnic and religious minorities for political reasons.

It still maintains sweeping laws, such as Article 88, that give the state nearly unlimited power over its citizens. The government still hasn’t taken modest actions that could put Vietnam squarely on the right side of internationally recognized human rights, such as ratifying and implementing the Convention Against Torture.

In a positive recent step, the Vietnamese government has begun a dialogue with Amnesty International and suggested that Vietnam may finally reform its constitution to better protect civil and political rights for it citizens. I sincerely hope so—for while great relationships can be built on the basis of common interests, as the U.S.-Vietnam one is now, the best and most enduring partnerships always rest on a foundation of shared values. In this challenge, as in every other challenge that the two countries have overcome together, I intend to remain Vietnam’s dedicated friend.

Our countries had a difficult and heartbreaking past. But they didn’t bind themselves to that past, and they are now traveling the road from reconciliation to true friendship. This promising prospect is among the biggest and most satisfying surprises of my life, one that I expect will astonish me more in the years ahead.

Mr. McCain is a U.S. senator from Arizona

A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

Anybody who plans to do business in Vietnam should read Joel Brinkley’s  column (below) that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.  The Stanford journalism professor published a textbook example of Western centrism, arrogance, and hypocrisy that insults an entire culture.

People who want to invest in Vietnam would be advised to learn from the ugly top_site_international_businessAmericanism expressed by Professor Brinkley, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Cambodia — but made the rookie mistake of generalizing about Vietnam  based on a brief tour there over the winter holidays.  That isn’t unusual for some Americans, many of whom still have archaic notions about Vietnam left over from the 1970s.

The most absurd and pathetic of Brinkley’s assertions is that “Vietnam has always been an aggressive country” because its people eat meat.  Actually,  Vietnam’s history is mostly about defending itself from the aggression of China and others, including Americans.

As penance for his mis-characterized aggression, the professor should be required to read every page of the new book: “Kill Anything That Moves,” which documents America’s systemic culture of war crime during the Vietnam War.

Brinkley also links Vietnamese consumption of birds, rodents, and canines to the demise of tigers, rhinos and elephants in their country.  It’s true Vietnamese eat birds (so do Americans) and rodents, but rice-eating Vietnamese mice in the field are not quite the same as rats in San Francisco’s sewers.  And, yes, dogs can be food as well as pets in Vietnam, but that is about cultural differences, not environmental conservation.

The column contains elements of truth, and even worthwhile information:  Protection of wildlife IS an important issue in Vietnam; perhaps Vietnamese DO tend to consume more protein than many of their Cambodian neighbors (which may imply more about the nutritional values of the workforces than anybody’s propensity for aggression).

But not much in the column rings true to me after my travels in Vietnam over the years.  An award-winning journalist and professor should know that a few days on a tour aren’t enough to generalize about a people. especially a people that was systematically dehumanized by the professor’s “people” not long ago.  And the idea that Vietnamese are aggressive, written from the perspective of an American, is just silly.

Unfortunately, the columnist exacerbated his cultural ignorance by responding to criticism of his column by insisting that meat makes people aggressive and, in the process, insulting Cambodians and Laotians.  He wrote: “Eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else. After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today. In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent. That means they grow up short and not so smart. Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese? I think so.”

For investors interested in avoiding the mistakes of a Pulitzer Prize winner who needs an editor, here is the column from the web site of the Chicago Tribune, which to its credit issued an apology for publishing it:

You don’t have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where’d they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone — though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world’s greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities — like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale — their fur removed but otherwise intact — ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, “are perilously close to extinction” — all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state’s origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries — two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state’s aggressive tendencies — and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It’s considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn’t eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You’ll actually bring on bad luck.

The Chicago Tribune’s apology:

“Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards. The column has provoked a highly critical response from readers since its release.

“TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley’s column that moved Jan. 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future.”

Terrorists, Subversives and Vietnam’s Economy

Vietnam took an important step this week toward stabilizing the political climate that undermines its global economic aspirations.  The country released and deported a popular Vietnamese American activist who had been accused of conspiring to overthrow the Communist government.

Authorities said activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, accused of terrorism when he was arrested in Saigon last April, confessed to a downgraded crime of subversion and asked for leniency to be reunited with his family in California.  The US sought his release; supporters say he is a nonviolent advocate of democratic reforms in Vietnam.

Hanoi’s action represents a significant departure from past practice:  prison terms for dissidents — sentences that inspire headlines across the world highlighting Vietnam’s human rights record.  The latest was in January when 14 political activists were sentenced to prison.

Are these cases examples of political oppression or measures necessary for national security?  Regardless of your point of view, they are bad for business.  They raise anxiety among global corporations that wonder whether their investments in Vietnam are sound and  safe.

Although Vietnam is objectively one of the best investment opportunities among the world’s frontier markets, it has serious economic challenges.  The country, especially its economy, needs positive public relations on a global scale, and freeing Nguyen Quoc Quan is a step in the right direction.  It helps defuse the still-lingering hostility between Vietnamese Americans and the ruling government of Vietnam.  And it promotes healthy Vietnam-US diplomatic relations, military cooperation and trade.