In historic turn, Vietnam casts China as opponent

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; A9

HANOI - Three weeks ago, an exhibition opened at the Vietnam Military History Museum. On one side of a long hall, the mementos of Vietnam's 25 years of war against the United States and France - letters of surrender, quotations from Ho Chi Minh, hand grenades and AK-47 rifles - lined the walls. Nothing new there.

But on the other side, the History Museum was actually making history. Along those walls hung daggers, paintings and quotations from Vietnam's struggle with another rival: imperial China. Battles dating from 1077, 1258 and the 14th and 18th centuries were featured in intricate detail.

Putting China on a par with "Western aggressors" marks a psychological breakthrough for Vietnam's military and is troubling news for Beijing. For years, China has tried to forge a special relationship with Vietnam's Communist government. But China's rise - and its increasingly aggressive posture toward Vietnam - has alarmed the leadership of this country of 90 million, prompting it to look differently at its neighbor. Beijing risks losing its status here as a fraternal Communist partner and instead being relegated to its longtime place as the empire on Vietnam's northern border that has shaped and bedeviled this country for centuries.

That change of perception has led Vietnam to embark on an extraordinary undertaking to befriend the world as a hedge against China. And prominent among its new intimates is the United States, which is equally eager for partners to help it cope with Beijing.

"It is always good to have a new friend," mused Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh in an interview. "It is even better when that friend used to be our foe."

The budding U.S.-Vietnamese friendship was on display Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here for her second visit in four months. Less than three weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was here. In August, the Defense Department held its first security dialogue with its counterpart in Hanoi. Three U.S. naval vessels have visited Vietnam in the past year. More than 30 Vietnamese officers are studying at U.S. military academies.

"The U.S. fought a war in Vietnam to check China's rise," said one former senior Vietnamese official who was not authorized by the government to speak to a reporter. "Now it's pursuing friendly relations with Vietnam . . . to check China's rise."

Vietnam and the United States are hammering out an agreement that would give Vietnam access to American nuclear energy technology. That, Vietnamese officials say, could help Hanoi end its dependence on China for electricity. Meanwhile, Vietnamese defense officials say they are eager to buy U.S. military technology, including sonar equipment to track Chinese submarines. Hanoi is also involved in talks to obtain spare parts for its arsenal of U.S.-made UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, an icon of the Vietnam War. And defying Chinese pressure, three American oil companies are carrying out offshore exploration in Vietnam's waters.

Common causes

Clinton's two-day visit marks the first time the United States will have participated in the East Asia Summit - an annual forum of the region's major countries. In fact, Vietnam ushered the United States into the group.

"The Vietnamese are very enthusiastic about deepening their partnership with us," Clinton said last week during a conversation with historian Michael Beschloss. "Here's a war where tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese were killed and maimed and injured and whose impact was felt so profoundly in our country and in Vietnam. And yet the Vietnamese and the Americans now are doing business together, are doing diplomacy together, are making common cause in some of the regional-global issues that we are both concerned with."

"We should leave the war to the writers," said Bao Ninh, the author of a haunting novel about the conflict titled "The Sorrow of War." Besides, added Ninh, who served as a private during the war, the United States is wildly popular here. "Even my generation likes the Americans more. If you polled the army, they'd still vote for the U.S."

One common cause the two countries have found is ensuring that China does not dominate the South China Sea. Beijing claims the whole 1 million-square-mile waterway including vast swaths of empty ocean 1,000 miles from China's southernmost tip, and has dispatched the world's largest maritime security vessel to the region to harass Vietnamese fishermen and oil exploration teams. In July, after consultation with Vietnam, Clinton broached the issue at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Hanoi, rejecting China's claims to the ownership of open ocean and calling for multilateral talks. Eleven other countries followed the United States' lead. China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, left the meeting in apparent shock, returning only to remind the other countries there that they are small and China is big.

Another common cause will be highlighted Saturday when Clinton leads a meeting of the U.S.-inspired Lower Mekong Initiative, which seeks, in part, to push Beijing to limit the number of dams it builds on the Mekong River as it flows south through China. Last week, the Mekong was at its lowest level in recorded history, and analysts in Vietnam blamed China's dams, irrigation and hydroelectric projects for the drop.

Branching out

Vietnam's charm offensive is not limited to the United States. Hanoi has strengthened its ties to its old patron, Moscow, and last year contracted to buy six Kilo-class submarines. Another Chinese rival, India, is in talks to help Vietnam upgrade its fleet of MiG-21 fighters. France, Vietnam's former colonial master, is considering selling warships to Hanoi. Vietnam has also reached out to Asian powers, such as South Korea and Japan, dropping visa requirements for their citizens five years ago.

"The Vietnamese are trying to find a way of telling the Chinese, 'We've got powerful friends,' " said Nayan Chanda, the author of "Brother Enemy," the classic study of Vietnam's relations with China. "But it's a very delicate game."

Indeed, China's influence in Vietnam remains powerful. Vietnam's economic reforms - known as doi moi - were inspired by China, and its security services have learned a lot from their Chinese counterparts about how to maintain one-party rule. As such, Hanoi is careful not to disturb Beijing, or not too much. At the Military Museum, for example, one war gets no treatment at all - the bloody border conflict Vietnam fought with China in 1979.

Vietnam's censors also routinely ban anti-Chinese news reports. On Thursday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry ordered a leading online newspaper, Vietnamnet, to pull an article predicting that Southeast Asian nations would take a tough stance against China over maritime disputes and other issues. Other stories, however, do get through, such as reports this week of a petition campaign led by Nguyen Thi Binh, Vietnam's former vice president and the Viet Cong's representative at the Paris peace talks, against a massive Chinese-invested bauxite mine in Vietnam's central highlands.

"We have been next to China for 4,000 years. We cannot just up and move," said Pham Chi Lan, a senior economist involved in the petition, which has drawn 3,000 signatures. "In order to survive, however, we need friends."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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