Le Cong Phung, 62, grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. As a teenager, he occasionally interrupted university studies to help his country fight the hated Americans. “I took part in anti-aircraft attacks against U.S. forces,” he told The Washington Diplomat matter-of-factly during a recent interview.
Today, Phung is Hanoi’s ambassador in Washington, and he’s proud to call Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War hero and former POW, “my good friend.”
The soft-spoken Phung is a living example of how far bilateral relations have come since 1995, when President Bill Clinton announced that the United States would formally establish diplomatic ties with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — one of the world’s few remaining communist countries.
In July, at a State Department reception marking the 15th anniversary of that milestone, the former president recalled how he exited a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) 10 years ago and found more than 10,000 people standing in the street waiting to greet him.
“But more importantly, when I went out to one of the excavation sites, I found Vietnamese citizens in mud above their knees looking for the remains of an American pilot. That work continues and I am very grateful for it,” Clinton recalled. “When I think about the problems we have in Washington with all the political infighting, sometimes I think the only issue all Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is that it’s a good thing we’re getting along with Vietnam.”
Phung, interviewed at the Vietnamese Embassy — located on the fourth floor of an office building just off Dupont Circle — says the transformation is nothing short of a miracle.
“We could not imagine 15 years ago that Vietnam’s relations with the United States would be as good as they are today. We have turned a page of history,” said the ambassador. “It’s fascinating to be here in the United States as Vietnam’s representative. I’m happy to see that relations between our countries have improved remarkably.”
Phung, who speaks fluent English and French, was born in a village in Thanh Hóa province, just south of Hanoi. He graduated from the Foreign Ministry’s School of Diplomacy in 1971 — the same year Lt. William Calley was imprisoned for his role in the My Lai massacre and 200,000 people turned out for an anti-war protest in Washington. It was also the year China pledged complete support for North Vietnam’s armed struggle against the United States.
Phung moved on to various positions at Vietnamese missions in Great Britain, China and Indonesia before being appointed ambassador to Thailand in 1993, the year Clinton announced he would end Washington’s trade embargo against Vietnam, paving the way toward full relations with Hanoi. From 2000 to 2004, Phung was chairman of Vietnam’s Committee on Border Affairs, serving concurrently as deputy foreign minister.
In 2007, the career diplomat was appointed to his current job by President Nguyen Minh Triet, who on Sept. 24 was scheduled to meet President Obama in New York, as co-hosts of the 2nd US-ASEAN Summit. Vietnam currently chairs the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), home to nearly 600 million people. Some are worried though that Washington is neglecting this critical bloc, as evidenced by the selection of New York to host the summit, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, as opposed to Washington, D.C., which was seen as carrying more weight.
The White House has said the decision simply came down to logistics, although some have speculated that the administration did not want to be seen bestowing legitimacy to ASEAN member nation Burma ahead of the military junta’s “election” in November.
Whatever the case, it’s clear the Obama administration has been working to bolster its diplomatic presence in ASEAN, America’s sixth-largest export market and home to more U.S. business investment than China. That fact was highlighted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a July visit to Vietnam, which, with 86 million people, is the third-most populated country in the trade bloc after Indonesia and the Philippines, also ranking 13th worldwide in population, just ahead of Germany.
“Politicians may come and go, but both the Vietnamese and Americans are peace-loving people. As ambassador, I have to work to promote bilateral relations,” said Phung, who proudly rattles off statistics showing how relations have taken off since the two countries forgave each other for past atrocities.
“When I arrived here in 2007, there were only 6,000 Vietnamese students in the U.S. At this moment, there are over 13,000,” he noted. “In 2001, when we signed a bilateral trade agreement, two-way trade was $1.2 billion. Now it’s nearly $16 billion. The United States has been moving up the list and is now among the six biggest investors in Vietnam. I’m working hard to make the U.S. number one.”
The United States is already Vietnam’s largest trade partner after China, according to the State Department. In another sign of unprecedented cooperation, this one involving the development of alternate energy sources for its burgeoning economy, Vietnam is turning to U.S. assistance to build as many as 10 nuclear power plants. The United States and Vietnam have already signed a memo of understanding on civil nuclear cooperation and are reportedly working on arrangements that would allow the Vietnamese to enrich their own uranium in order to generate nuclear power.
It’s a stunning turnaround for two countries that were still engaged in a bloody Cold War confrontation less than four decades ago. Indeed, the Vietnam War will to a degree forever color the relationship between the two countries.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, calls Vietnam “the nuclear option of historical analogies” because the name Vietnam itself is often code for seemingly intractable quagmires in which the United States finds itself caught up, like Iraq or Afghanistan today.
Yet “if the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan eventually resembles the one we now have with Vietnam, we should be overjoyed,” wrote Kurlantzick, noting that 58,000 American soldiers and untold millions of Vietnamese died in the long war, which began in the early 1950s under French colonial rule and finally ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
“Much like the airstrikes in Afghanistan, U.S. tactics in Vietnam — such as the spraying of Agent Orange and bombings that caused widespread civilian deaths — alienated the civilian population there. And even after the war officially ended, Washington continued to punish Hanoi, refusing to recognize the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia that had ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge and slapping a trade embargo on Vietnam.”
Even so, the bad memories have faded over time. Kurlantzick cited a 2008 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in which 76 percent of Vietnamese polled say the U.S. influence in Asia is positive. That’s a greater percentage than in Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia.
“Little more than a generation after a bloody, frustrating war,” he wrote, “Vietnam and the United States have become close partners in Southeast Asia, exchanging official visits, building an important trading and strategic relationship and fostering goodwill between governments, businesses and people on both sides.”
In a way, the relationship has come full circle. “During the Second World War, people from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services [precursor to today’s CIA] stood next to our leaders of resistance fighting the Japanese fascists,” Phung pointed out.
But that alliance crumbled soon after the war ended, and by the early 1950s, Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces were beating back the French and establishing a state in the north, and the U.S. government began warning of the “domino effect” that a communist Vietnam would have on other countries throughout Southeast Asia.
Phung, whose father fought Vietnam’s French colonial rulers, freely admitted that he “actively supported the war” in South Vietnam, which was viewed by Ho Chi Minh and his fellow communists as a U.S. puppet state.
“America’s big mistake was that in the past, it tried to fight against communism, and now Vietnam is communist,” he said. “You will remember that in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared independence for his new nation, he sent a letter to President [Franklin] Roosevelt asking him for relations with Vietnam. Instead of good relations, the U.S. created a war.”
Yet history is nothing if not full of ironies and today, the one-time enemies are increasingly becoming strategic partners as a hedge against a newfound regional rival — China, Vietnam’s once-unshakable communist ally. Southeast Asia’s concerns about Beijing’s rising military strength and its claims to the entire South China Sea have led to an interesting shift in regional dynamics.
For years, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors welcomed Beijing’s economic overtures and its soft diplomacy but have recently grown wary of China’s increasingly belligerent military assertiveness, especially on the high seas, “due to its rising sense of self-importance and perception that the U.S. is distracted with other international priorities,” as Josh Rogin recently wrote in his blog “The Cable” for Foreign Policy. As a result, many governments are looking to traditional American power to counteract China’s newfound confidence.
And far from being distracted, the United States is answering the call and reasserting itself in the region. During a late July visit to Hanoi while attending a regional ASEAN forum, Secretary of State Clinton declared that it would be in America’s “national interest” to help mediate disputes among China and other Asian countries over islands and maritime rights in the South China Sea. Chief among those disputes is ownership of the Spratly Islands, a complex archipelago of 750 minor islands, atolls and cays that are variously claimed by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
“The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” she said — for the first time effectively rejecting China’s claims to sovereignty over the whole 1.3 million-square-mile sea, home to undersea oil reserves and vital shipping lanes. “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”
That triggered an angry response from Beijing, which views the dispute as a bilateral matter, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi describing Clinton’s comment as “in effect an attack on China” — leaving some observers taken aback at Beijing’s fury.
“The Chinese took off the mask. Their response to Hillary sent very deep shivers down the spines of ASEAN’s leadership,” said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Vietnamese are clearly worried by the enhancement of China’s strength in the region, particularly with China pushing them around in regard to oil and gas and fisheries in the South China Sea,” Bower told The Diplomat in a phone call from Jakarta, Indonesia, where he was attending a regional conference. “In response to that, the Vietnamese want to be part of a very strong ASEAN that can work together to [stand up to] China when it pushes too hard. And they want to strengthen their relationship with the United States to make sure the U.S. is engaged in the region should the Chinese try to assert themselves.”
To that end, in August, Vietnam conducted joint naval exercises with U.S. forces in the South China Sea after Hanoi accused Beijing of violating its sovereignty by conducting seismic exploration near an island that Vietnam claims, as well as at oil and gas concessions on its continental shelf.
“We have a problem with China and neighboring countries relating to territorial integrity. With our immediate neighbors, we always have border issues,” said Phung, who previously chaired Vietnam’s border commission and helped to negotiate China’s land and maritime borders with Vietnam.
The regional tensions have also sparked a buying spree, with the New York Times reporting that weapons acquisitions in the region almost doubled from 2005 to 2009 compared with the five preceding years.
Vietnam reportedly has agreed to pay $2.4 billion for six Russian Kilo-class submarines and a dozen Su-30MKK jet fighters equipped for maritime warfare.
Phung told The Diplomat that Vietnam is buying weapons “because the U.S. strategy in the region needs partners there. The Asian countries think the balance of force of the big guys will be a good thing for the region.”
Even so, he cautioned, “We haven’t bought any weapons from the United States because your law still prohibits it. I’ve asked them to change that. But even if we were allowed, we’re not yet ready to buy. It’s too expensive.”
Nevertheless, Vietnam and the United States are talking about a “strategic relationship” that involves both countries’ militaries, and a formal bilateral defense pact could be signed by year’s end, the ambassador noted.
“Vietnam is among the few countries in Southeast Asia to have that kind of role with the United States,” Phung told us. “All these dialogues have been going smoothly, with both sides sharing their views and concerns, and working on how to intensify cooperation in security and defense.”
But the Vietnamese diplomat discounts the notion — widely supported by Bower and other Southeast Asia experts — that Chinese aggression is what’s pushing his country closer to the United States.
“Lately, there have been a lot of articles relating to the Chinese threat, but having good relations with the United States is not rooted in a fear of China. A very good example is 1945, when there was no threat from China and Vietnam wanted relations with the United States,” he said.
“After the war, even though the U.S. killed millions of our people and destroyed our country, we put aside everything to search for Americans missing in action, and that was long before the normalization of relations,” he added. “We understood that American families also lost husbands, sons and daughters in the war. None of these things were done because of the threat from China.”
In fact, given the normalization of relations, it’s easy to forget that the United States never succeeded in dislodging communism during its lengthy and costly campaign. To the contrary, Vietnam remains proudly communist to this day. Its flag consists of a lone yellow star against a red background, symbolizing communism, and the ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle is emblazoned on propaganda signs and posters throughout the country.
In theory at least, Vietnam is ruled by a 15-member Politburo headed by Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh that determines government policy, as well as a 161-member Central Committee that meets at least twice a year. In addition, a Party Congress meets every five years to set the direction of the party; the most recent gathering was held in April 2006 and the next one is scheduled to convene in January 2011.
“Communism is still very much alive in Vietnam. It may exist here and there all over the world, but ours is a Vietnamese brand of communism, because it combines elements of Lenin, Marx and Ho Chi Minh,” the ambassador explained.
“We don’t think the political and social conditions of every country are the same. In Vietnam, no matter who the top leader is, the country got out of the war and won independence. We unified our country, reconciled with each other, and in the last 20 years we have taken our country forward, with annual growth rates averaging 7.5 to 8 percent.”
To that end, communist Vietnam is also a hotbed of capitalism whose economy is among the fastest growing in the world. Billboards advertising Chevrolet and Toyota cars cram the main road from the airport to Hanoi, along with factories mass-producing electronics for consumer goods giants like Panasonic and Canon.
In December 2004, the first U.S. commercial flight since the end of the Vietnam War touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, and in January 2007, Vietnam became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization.
The percentage of Vietnamese living below the poverty line has dropped from nearly 60 percent of the population in 1993 to under 20 percent today, according to government figures. The United Nations says Vietnam has met most of its Millennium Development Goals and is no longer considered among the world’s poorest countries. Rather, it has joined the group of “middle-income states,” with annual per-capita income hovering just above $1,000.
For these reasons, claims Phung, few Vietnamese yearn for multiparty democracy.
“We haven’t had any coup d’états or violence. There is no terrorist activity in Vietnam yet. The communist leadership has maintained people’s standard of living,” he said. “Everyone shares in the achievements of our renovation and reform policy. You can call it one-party leadership, but the fact is all Vietnamese support the party and they don’t see why we have to change.”
Not everyone agrees, however. Some individuals have amassed incredible wealth, including elite members of the Communist Party, while many “private” businesses are either former state-owned enterprises or still have some state ownership; most are run by party members, their families or their friends.
“The marriage between party and private interest is distorting the economy toward the wants of the few rather than the needs of the many,” warned author Bill Hayton in a January 2010 article titled “Vietnam’s New Money” that appeared in Foreign Policy. “And networks of crony socialism are becoming a threat to Vietnam’s future stability. Vietnam risks the fate of many of the World Bank’s previous poster children — boom followed by bust.”
At the moment though, investors are still cashing in on the boom part. Anthony Nelson, spokesman for the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington, said fast-growing Vietnam — with a gross domestic product exceeding $92 billion — has become “a very interesting environment for business” in a rather short amount of time.
“They have very ambitious plans for their future, which means working with high-quality foreign investors. There’s a lot of opportunity for U.S. business in Vietnam, particularly in infrastructure,” Nelson told The Diplomat. “U.S. companies are working to build Vietnam’s physical infrastructure, like roads, ports, bridges and power plants, but they’re also exploring growth opportunities in health care, education and information technology.”
To that end, investment continues to pour into Vietnam, along with foreign tourists. The country now receives around 1 million visitors per year, including Vietnamese living in the United States — and an increasing number of Vietnam vets returning for a firsthand look at the country that defined their lives.
Phung says all of them are warmly welcomed.
“Above all, we want the American people to get to know Vietnam and have contact with us, so that they will have a better understanding of us,” he said. “The mentality has changed. Those who committed crimes from the U.S. side now realize it was wrong.”
The ambassador singled out for praise both McCain and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), as well as Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who was a rifle platoon and company commander with the Fifth Marine Regiment in Vietnam’s An Hoa Basin, west of Danang. For his bravery, the Vietnamese-speaking leatherneck was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star medal, two Bronze Star medals and two Purple Hearts.
“Sen. Webb was a soldier, and now he’s married to a Vietnamese lady, and he’s visited my country over 30 times,” said the ambassador. “We were enemies in the past, and now we’re natural allies. Whenever I meet with these guys, I don’t have any bad feelings toward them. We talk together as partners.”
Asked if the United States — embroiled in war for nearly a decade in Afghanistan and for seven years in Iraq — could learn any lessons from the tragedy of the Vietnam War, Phung quietly offered this advice: “I hope the United States will not commit another mistake. I think peace should prevail. War is not the solution.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.