Old Enemies, New Friends

Developments in Vietnam’s ties with the United States are an encouraging sign of what diplomacy can achieve.

Last week in Washington DC, there was a sight that once might have seemed strange: A Vietnamese military officer giving a speech about his country’s national defence.

Speaking at the National War College, Lt. Gen. Vo Tien Trung – the first member of the Vietnamese military to speak in the United States since the end of the war between the two countries in 1975 – touched on myriad topics as he stressed Vietnam’s independence from entangling military alliances and emphasised the important role that diplomacy will play in resolving current disputes.

Trung’s speech comes on the heels of an agreement signed between the United States and Vietnam in September, which was widely seen as giving Hanoi an added measure of security in its ongoing territorial spat with China over the Spratly Islands. While dialogue and negotiation are naturally the preferred methods with which to resolve the dispute in the South China Sea, it’s also true that the two countries have the military means to back up their rhetoric. As a result, the memorandum of understanding that Hanoi was able to ink with Washington is of vital importance to the Vietnamese government.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam were only re-established in 1995, with both states having held a deep mutual distrust of each other throughout the two decades that followed the hugely costly conflict that ultimately saw the retreat of the US military.

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Trung coolly dodged questions pertaining to the war during his interaction with the audience, insisting on the importance of looking forward. Indeed, the US-Vietnam relationship is thriving, with agreements signed between the two countries on a variety of issues including on trade and commerce, regional security and human rights.

My parents’ generation, which grew up during the Vietnam War, would probably never have believed that relations between the two nations would be as strong and healthy as they are today. It shows once again that a state’s own interests can indeed be promoted in cooperation with other states – diplomacy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

But co-operation will always need the skill of savvy diplomats, politicians or even military personnel like Trung if past animosities are to be set aside. Europe has some encouraging examples of foes becoming partners. The US-Vietnam relationship offers some encouraging signs for the Asia-Pacific too.