Forty years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam today enjoys rapid growth as a semi-developed economy. It would be meaningful for Japan to look back at the changes that have taken place over the past four decades in both Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia and review its relations with the country and the region itself.

On April 30, 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam (the armed forces of North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (known as the Viet Cong) took Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and now Ho Chi Minh City, ending the war that had lasted some 15 years.

It was in 1960 that the Viet Cong was formed and started its armed struggle against the South Vietnamese government. The United States, which supported South Vietnam, started its military intervention in 1962 and began bombing North Vietnam in 1965. The U.S. started withdrawing its troops from Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 went into force. The North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong launched a large-scale offensive in March 1975 that eventually led to the fall of Saigon.

The Vietnam War had the character of a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong on Jan. 30, 1968, which marked a turning point in the war, served as a catalyst for the opposition movement to the war to become strong in various parts of the world. The futile war sapped the economic power of the U.S., leading to the Nixon Shock of August 1971 that unilaterally canceled the direct convertibility of the U.S. dollar to gold — which marked the start of a decline in Washington’s global hegemony.

In that a small country in Southeast Asia repelled the military intervention of a superpower, the war was not only a war of national liberation but also a war that changed world history. Still, the cost to Vietnam was not small. The war killed some 3 million Vietnamese, leaving scars on people’s lives even today. Many Vietnamese continue to suffer from the effects of defoliants that were used by the U.S. forces during the war.

The unified country continued to face difficulties after the war. The economy was impoverished and a large number of its people left the country, becoming boat people. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and a war with China in 1979 further dissipated its national strength. It was impossible to feed all of the people of the South with its centralized ration system.

After Vietnam introduced the Doi Moi reforms in 1986, the U.S. gradually lifted economic sanctions against the country until it fully removed them in 1994. The U.S. and Vietnam normalized their relations in 1995, although the U.S. offered no apologies or compensation for the war. The Doi Moi policy helped catapult Vietnam — which used to be counted among the world’s poorest economies — into a rapidly growing economy, although the policy, which embraced the market economy, was a harbinger of the collapse of the traditional socialism.

In today’s Vietnam, citizens have come to have a bigger voice in the public arena — even though the country is still under the communist party’s single-party rule. Citizens are playing leading roles in the movement to protest environmental disruption and in anti-Chinese demonstrations. A major issue is how the communist party will deal with these citizens who have become conscious of their own power. An erroneous response carries the risk of turning the citizens against the government.

Despite the potential tensions within the country, Vietnam is in a position to become an important growth center among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is scheduled to launch a common market by the end of this year in its attempt to develop further economic integration. Countries that used to be battlefields are turning into production centers and markets that attract global attention.

Japan’s official assistance to Vietnam has so far centered around aid for development of the country’s infrastructure. But it appears clear that Japan can no longer compete in this field with China, which has the massive funding and manpower to implement infrastructure projects. Tokyo needs to work out a new strategy in its relations with Vietnam.

Vietnam as a manufacturing center continues to attract foreign investment. People who once fled the country as boat people are now coming back and are playing an important role in its economic development.

Still Vietnam needs more people to take charge of its next generation of development, including people in middle management to serve as team leaders in factories and offices. One idea might be for Japan to help establish technical colleges there to train such people, and dispatch retired Japanese engineers as teaching staff.

Japan also should consider new, creative approaches to its relations with other Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. The 40th year after the end of the Vietnam War should serve as an opportunity for Japan to look again at its relations with the rapidly evolving countries in the region.

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