WASHINGTON – Vietnam is a country bursting with youthful energy. The nearly 100 million Vietnamese have an average age of just 31, and despite living under single-party communist rule, they have a thriving capitalist economy that may hit 10 percent growth this year. And, of great importance to the United States and its allies, Vietnam is strategically positioned along the western side of the South China Sea, and has a series of maritime disputes with its neighbors, especially China.
I recently spent over a week visiting the country from north to south, including coastal cruising along 1,600 km of shoreline — waters I have sailed before.
In the late 1970s, I was on the South China Sea as a young U.S. Navy officer undertaking humanitarian mission rescuing the so-called boat people of what had been South Vietnam — refugees from the brutal communist re-education camps and the vengeful government in the north.
As we picked up boatloads of starving Vietnamese, I remember thinking how deeply determined these people were, and how I thought they would quickly embrace a free life in the U.S. They have: There are nearly 2 million Vietnamese-Americans today, a flourishing diaspora centered in California and Texas, with remarkable economic and educational achievement.
The history of America and Vietnam is, of course, haunted by the Vietnam War, which cost the U.S. more than 58,000 dead over a decade — nearly 15 times the death toll of Iraq and Afghanistan combined on a population-adjusted basis. The casualties among the Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, on both sides of the conflict, reached into the millions. Yet both nations seem to have reached the point of moving beyond any lingering bitterness, and the affection for America is sincere from the highest levels of the Vietnamese government to the people on the street.
Much of that proclivity toward the U.S., naturally, is bound up in deep anxiety about China and its ambitions for the South China Sea. This tension isn’t new: China and Vietnam have clashed repeatedly over the centuries, most recently a bloody regional war in 1979. How does Vietnam fit in the context of U.S.-Chinese relations, and what should Washington be doing to maximize relations with this potential strategic partner?
The fundamental geopolitical backdrop is a mutual interest in denying China the ability to simply declare the South China Sea a territorial body of water owned by Beijing. Within the “nine-dash line” that China uses to demarcate its maritime claims, virtually all of the other nations in the region have significant counterclaims — many of which are more legitimate than China’s, as confirmed by international courts.
In buttressing their claims, the Chinese are building artificial islands (many of which have military uses) and moving large maritime platforms, from floating fishing factories to massive oil and gas rigs, into waters they claim. Vietnam opposes this mercantile maritime aggression, and has clashed at sea with its huge neighbor to the north. As a result, the U.S. is increasingly popular in Vietnam, while China is increasingly seen as a threat, despite significant trade and tourism ties that bolster the Vietnamese economy.
An improved U.S. strategy for engaging with Vietnam would include a strong military component, starting with joint exercises in the South China Sea and inviting the Vietnamese Navy to participate in larger U.S. training events in the Western Pacific. Last year, Vietnam was allowed to send a few officers to participate in the U.S. Navy’s biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise off Hawaii, the world’s largest maritime military event. That role should be expanded.
The U.S. could also send Vietnam more sophisticated military equipment, particularly maritime sensors, and perhaps donate more decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard and Navy vessels as part of foreign military aid programs (one former U.S. Coast Guard cutter is in service already). The Vietnamese coast guard conducts many important geopolitical missions in the region, and has been an enthusiastic partner in counternarcotics and fisheries enforcement.
More formally, Washington should clearly move toward a more strategic relationship with Vietnam — not a full-blown defense treaty as with Thailand or the Philippines, but a strong informal cooperative security arrangement.
During a recent visit to Vietnam, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said: “The history of our two nations reveals the possibilities for peace and prosperity. We have moved past conflict towards a flourishing partnership that spans political, economic, security and people-to-people ties.”
Taking full advantage of Vietnam strategically also requires an economic component. U.S. firms seeking to find both low-cost labor and entry-level markets in Asia are intrigued with opportunities in both the north (centered on the capital, Hanoi) and in the sprawling former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. All of this would be strengthened by a new bilateral free-trade agreement, or even better, the U.S. joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational economic agreement the Trump administration foolishly turned its back on.
Diplomatically, the U.S. should continue the high-level engagement that was jump-started by Trump’s state visit to Hanoi in February. It should seek to draw Vietnam into stronger relationships with other U.S. allies in East Asia, notably Japan, South Korea and Singapore. This would include working out competing maritime claims among all these nations, so they can focus on the common antagonist, China. There is also potential over time for mutual diplomatic work on maritime environmental issues that are crucial for Vietnam: rising sea levels, plastics in the ocean, and falling fish stocks, piracy, etc.
Perhaps the most interesting person I met on this trip was Kim Phuc, the “napalm girl” who was photographed running naked and screaming in pain after a U.S. napalm bomb struck her village in 1972. The terrible scars on her back run from her neck to her knees, and she has lived in pain throughout her life.
She is now a 50-something Canadian citizen who left Vietnam decades ago, but has become an iconic voice for looking ahead and refusing to be imprisoned by the past. She said to me, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred; napalm is powerful, but not as powerful as faith and love.” Her journey is an example of how the Vietnamese people have largely turned resolutely from a long-ago war and toward the future.
As I reflect on the boat people I helped rescue, I’m struck by the fact of $8 billion in annual remittances sent to Vietnam from Vietnamese-Americans, and all that community contributes to U.S. society as well. America is lucky to have them, as with so many immigrants who come to its shores. Over time, these Vietnamese-Americans will help the U.S. connect ever more deeply with Vietnam, a powerful potential partner and friend.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.