The disputed South China Sea looms large in Vietnam-US relations, and China’s intimidation of its neighbor has helped deepen relations, the former US ambassador revealed to Hanoi.
âIn fact, even during my very first meeting with President Truong Tan Sang when I presented my credentials, we talked about the importance of the South China Sea,â said Ted Osius, who is now President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council. , a business promotion group.
âPretty much every meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and later Premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc, we also talked about the South China Sea; President Tran Dai Quang and General Secretary of the Communist Party (Nguyen Phu Trong) too, âhe told RFA in an interview.
In his new book, “Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam” (Rutgers University Press, 2021), Osius offers a vivid first-hand account of the development of Vietnam-U.S. Relations over the course of the last quarter of a century.
In his view, the “critical turning point” that made Hanoi’s rulers realize they needed new strategic partners came in May 2014, when China moved a large oil rig to the waters near the islands. Paracel that both Vietnam and China claim in the South. China Sea.
The incident led to an unprecedented wave of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and was seen by many as one of the most serious developments in the long-standing territorial disputes between the two countries.
âIt alerted Vietnamese leaders that China was going to pursue a model of intimidation,â Osius said. Those in Vietnam who “were reluctant to embrace the United States became more open to the possibility of having a close relationship with the United States,” he added.
Since then, military cooperation between Hanoi and Washington has expanded considerably, and the US Navy has conducted regular joint activities, including stopovers, with Vietnamese partners.
Osius, who was Ambassador to Hanoi from 2014 to 2017, told RFA that his new book was “not a book of politics but much more, because I think reconciliation is about people.”
“So this is a series of stories about people and mainly people who took great risks and were very courageous in turning the United States and Vietnam from enemies to friends.”
“And I tell stories about what it was like in the early years that I first went to Vietnam, right after normalization and how welcome I felt in the country at the time,” did he declare.
‘Nothing is impossible’
The formal normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries was not announced until 1995 under President Bill Clinton, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War. A year earlier, in February 1994, the United States lifted its decades-old trade embargo on Vietnam.
âI think the transition in our relationshipâ¦ is pretty phenomenal. I call the book “Nothing is Impossible” because Pete Peterson, who was the first United States Ambassador to Vietnam and a former prisoner of war, on the 20the anniversary of diplomatic relations stood up and said: ‘You know, in US-Vietnamese relations, nothing is impossible!’ Osius explained.
When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Hanoi in August, there was talk of turning bilateral relations into a so-called “strategic partnership”, which Vietnam has with a number of countries deemed very important in terms of security and economic development.
The strategic partnership was not announced during the visit, yet “we already have a strategic partnership,” Osius argued.
âHe just doesn’t have that name, and I think that’s okayâ¦ I actually think there’s been a lot of confidence that has developed over the years. But Vietnamese leaders are cautious because they have to find a balance – they have a very powerful neighbor in the north with whom they must have good relations, âhe explained.
Apparently referring to President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in 2017, Osius said: Vietnam to join this trade deal, and then we kind of cut the grass to them. under the foot. “
The veteran diplomat, who served as an ambassador under Obama and Trump, resigned from the foreign service in 2017 after falling out with the Trump administration over a plan to deport thousands of refugees who fled Vietnam after the war.
In his new book, Osius made no secret of his criticism of Trump, which he described as “false and erratic”.
“President Trump showed no interest, he was not even interested in a five-minute briefing” before his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in May 2017, according to the former ambassador.
âI think it was disrespectful to the Vietnamese prime minister. In President Trump’s worldview, it’s all about transaction and it’s the worldview of a person who has been involved in real estate transactions their entire life and doesn’t invest in relationships.
Unequal record on rights
Osius described how Trump made “a ridiculous joke” on the name of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phuc and said nothing could have prepared him for the meeting which was “very, very strange.”
âDiplomacy is about building trust and showing respect, investing in relationships and doing things together – it’s not just about money and power. In my opinion, a president did not understand that.
Trump’s policies, Osius said, made it difficult to “pressure the Vietnamese over human rights,” which were “the most difficult issues I have dealt with as an ambassador.”
Vietnam has consistently been criticized for severe restrictions on freedom of expression, religious freedom and civil society. Vice President Kamala Harris said during her recent visit that she raised human rights concerns, including the release of dissidents jailed during meetings with Vietnamese leaders.
Hanoi still denies that there are political prisoners in the country, saying people are only detained for breaking the laws.
âI started by being very clear on what we were looking for. I always have a little card in my shirt pocket. It was America’s human rights demands, and there were names on that map, âOsius said.
âEvery six months, we refreshed this card with a list of names and a list of top requests. “
âWe were asking for the release of some people who had spoken out to express their own views, and I was sometimes frustrated because I called for someone’s release and other people would be put in jail. There were activists who were beaten up, there were people who blogged and then were put in prison for expressing their opinions, âhe recalled.
âI raised these issues all the time, and sometimes I was successful and some people got released, and sometimes I didn’t. The results were therefore mixed.
Osius admitted that he “has never been a big fan of exile” when a prisoner of conscience is released and exiled to the United States.
“I don’t think this is the solution at all, because those people who are brave enough to speak for their nation should stay in Vietnam and keep working for society to improve,” he said. .
Osius said, however, that looking at the long-term changes in Vietnam, “the trajectory is good,” and people have a lot more freedom these days than before.
âI think society will only improve if the leaders are able to hear criticism from members of society, to have a free exchange of views and that will not destabilize the country. It is my deep conviction that Vietnam can withstand internal criticism and can emerge stronger.