by KEVIN KNODELL
The Pentagon plans to give Vietnam millions of dollars to buy American-made patrol boats. It’s a huge milestone, 40 years after the bloody and divisive American war in Vietnam.
On May 31, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter pledged $18 million just to help Washington’s former enemy expand its coast guard. Carter made the announcement while visiting the Southeast Asian country as part of a visit to boost security cooperation between Washington and Hanoi.
The vessels are just the latest addition to Hanoi’s growing wish list of Western weapons, which also includes more ships, warplanes and drones.
In April, Vietnam hosted a defense symposium organized by the U.S. embassy. The conference in Hanoi brought in representatives from American defense giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell International and more than a dozen others.
“Any defense related sales to Vietnam will follow development of U.S. government policy on Vietnam,” Boeing spokesman Jay Krishnan told Bloomberg.
“We believe Boeing has capabilities in mobility and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms that may meet Vietnam’s modernization needs.”
Nearly three weeks earlier, the U.S. and Vietnamese navies conducted a joint training mission to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. This is the sixth such exercise in what’s become an annual event between the two navies.
It’s part of a trend toward broader cooperation between the former enemies. The Oregon National Guard has hosted delegations of Vietnamese military personnel through the Guard’s State Partnership Program.
Growing distrust between Hanoi and Beijing has played a central role in hastening this reconciliation. Vietnam wants a better arsenal to counter an increasingly assertive China.
It’s even come to blows. In May 2014, the Vietnamese coast guard got into a scuffle with China over HD-981, an oil rig owned by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation — a.k.a., CNOOC. The rig set up shop in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese ships ordered the rig to leave Vietnamese territorial waters immediately. The Chinese coast guard was there to greet them. It was a tense meeting that resulted in damage to both sides’ ships. It’s hard to say who threw the first punch — or whether either side intended to start a fight.
Both groups claimed the other side’s ships rammed them. Chinese coast guard ships sprayed Vietnamese vessels with their water cannons. A stand off ensued as Vietnamese and Chinese warships converged on the rig.
The clash triggered nationalist protests in Vietnam. Angry mobs targeted Chinese expatriates and businesses, injuring several people in the ensuing violence. Many Chinese fled the country, while Beijing made efforts to evacuate other nationals.
By July, CNOOC announced it would move the rig, ending the crisis. But tensions over islands in the Pacific remain a sticking point between the two nations. The countries averted violence, but Vietnam began rapidly bolstering its defenses.
In January 2015, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh visited the Philippines — which also happens to be a close U.S. ally — in hopes of bolstering ties.
Manila and Hanoi have made increased overtures to work toward greater strategic cooperation — particularly on maritime issues. The Philippines had condemned China’s actions during the oil rig confrontation as a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.
But the Vietnamese military isn’t just counting on new allies — it’s also relying on plenty of combat experience. Their wars didn’t end with the fall of Saigon.
In 1979, Hanoi’s troops invaded neighboring Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge — former allies — from power. After four years of the group’s brutal regime in Phnom Penh, dictator Pol Pot’s madness had flooded Southeast Asia with death and refugees.
For more than a decade, the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia hunting down remnants of the Khmer Rouge. But Hanoi’s occupation of its neighbor was long and controversial. Vietnamese soldiers often crossed into Thailand to pursue Khmer Rouge fighters.
Vietnamese troops also engaged in a series of battles and border skirmishes against the Chinese army between 1979 and 1990. The Chinese had greater numbers and more powerful weaponry, forcing Hanoi’s troops to get creative. They would occasionally launch cross border raids on Chinese ammo dumps and disrupt supply lines, causing logistical headaches.
Chinese commanders frequently called reinforcements when munitions ran low. Vietnamese forces punched above their weight, but still took heavy casualties. There are no reliable numbers for how many died on either side.
Vietnam’s military has earned a reputation for thriftiness and creativity with limited resources during its many wars. Nevertheless, Hanoi wants to significantly modernize its forces for the 21st century.
Buying American patrol boats are just one part of that process. On June 5, Reuters reported that Vietnam is also seeking to buy Western warplanes and drones. Vietnamese officials are apparently in talks with U.S. firms, as well as Swedish firm Saab, the Eurofighter consortium and others.
It’s ironic that companies like Boeing — which produced planes that dropped millions of bombs on Hanoi — might now be helping build Vietnam’s defenses. But not everyone is enthusiastic about this budding partnership. Both militaries lost thousands of lives at the hands of the other — many active servicemen on both sides lost relatives during the war.
When U.S. Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. John Kerry — both Vietnam veterans — pushed for the normalization of relations with Hanoi in the 1990s, many American veterans accused them of consorting with the enemy.
There’s lingering conspiracy theories of American soldiers remaining alive in secret Vietnamese prisons. There’s little chance any of these stories are true. In fact, the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries actively cooperate to find remains and account for the dead.
What is real is the continued mistreatment of former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families, pro-democracy activists and minority religious and ethnic groups such as the Montagnards that allied with the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon.
There are also allegations of Vietnamese excursions into neighboring Laos to help the country’s authorities suppress dissent among the Hmong community as recently as 1999. During the fighting in Southeast Asia, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited Hmong guerrillas to fight against communist forces.
Many in the Vietnamese diaspora abroad still fly the South Vietnamese flag in a show of defiance against Hanoi. But the world has changed a lot since the Vietnam War ended.
During the April naval exercise, Capt. H.B. Le — a Vietnamese American sailor — was the officer in charge of U.S. vessels participating in the event. Le previously commanded guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen when it visited Da Nang in November 2009.
“It’s great to be back in Vietnam,” Le said. “And we’re very much looking forward to working with our Vietnamese navy counterparts.”
Maybe next time, those Vietnamese sailors will be sailing in American-made ships.