VIETNAM PIVOT HERALDS ASIA’S
COMPLEX NEW AGE
Guess who’s suddenly inviting
Uncle Sam to dinner?
Real-life diplomacy reveals, as
Lord Palmerston, twice British prime minister (1855-8, 1859-65), famously
put it: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our
interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to
follow.” Over the decades the Palmerston Principle has proven relevant to
other countries in their foreign relations, including the United States.
In our case, of course, we are
notorious for our swoons of idealism but we can be brought down to earth
by changes in reality. Case in point: the astonishing evolution of U.S.
relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam today, like so much of
Asia, is on a roll. Although its per-capita income is less right now than
even the Philippines’, it is growing. Its population is three times that
of Peru, a quarter more than France’s, more than double that of Canada’s,
and almost four times that of Australia’s. Its economic reforms are
starting to release its workforce from the prison of socialism.
The last time I was in Vietnam,
you I felt no society of dead souls but a vibrant culture on the move. Ho
Chi Minh City (the former Saigon, as most call it) felt to me like the
surging South Korean capital of Seoul in the nineties. But it wasn’t until
President Clinton’s official visit to Vietnam in 2000 that the big chill
with the U.S. began to snap.
For decades it was a very tough
country to like, to be sure. In the American political language at one
time, the seven-letter word Vietnam had all but morphed into a dirty
four-letter one – synonymous for something between nightmare and
quagmire. By 1975, when the U.S. finally gave up the war there, after
more than 58,000 of its soldiers had died and many times that returned a
physical and/or psychological mess, Americans hoped they would not hear of
Vietnam ever again.
But our distaste for anything
Vietnamese has passed. Veterans who lost limbs or suffer even today from
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can never, understandably, forget. But
America is surely the globe’s leader in historical memory loss. Often this
is a bad thing. But in the case of Vietnam, it’s probably for the best.
At the APEC summit in Honolulu,
Vietnam’s representatives, which joined the economic forum in 1998,
hobnobbed with the 20 other members, including President Barack Obama from
the U.S., an original 1989 founding member. Once again Vietnam made clear
its comfort level with the U.S. Consider that at one time the Vietnamese
could not wait for us to leave their country. Now they sometimes act as if
they cannot get enough of us. They even want the U.S. to use a base of
Vietnam’s ardor for hooking up
with its former mortal enemy has risen as its history-embedded wariness
about China has intensified. Everyone in Asia knows that China is now the
big man on the block. But Beijing’s advertised policy of “peaceful rising”
would be viewed, from the various self-interested perspectives of its
Asian neighbors, as much more charming and convincing if it would knock
off the occasional and unnecessary naval bullying. That’s why countries
wish to take out a U.S. insurance policy – geopolitical accident
insurance, as it were.
America faces serious dangers in
allowing its national interests to be drawn too closely into those of
others. Vietnam has a border with China; we have colossal loans owed the
Chinese! We need to work our way through Asia without seriously
antagonizing anyone. Good relations with China are an absolute priority
for the U.S.
The new U.S. focus on Asia is
wonderful to behold. President Barack Obama’s trade-barrier busting
efforts at APEC (which includes Peru as a member, as well as Russia) are a
great start. The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership in the making would
represent economies totaling something like 40% of the global economy.
“It is becoming increasingly
clear that in the 21st century, the world’s strategic and economic center
of gravity, will be the Asia-Pacific from the Indian subcontinent to the
western shores of the Americas.” This comes from none other than Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton (and hasn’t she be doing an excellent job),
speaking during the past weekend summit in Hawaii.
We folks on these very western
shores – especially right here in Los Angeles – have known this to be the
case for quite some time. But Washington’s head has been stuck in the
Middle East and European quicksand. It is now shaking some of the sandy
past off and looking around at the new reality and how it can best fit in
and lead. U.S public opinion is changing, too. A survey, Transatlantic
Trends 2011, reports that for the first time a majority of Americans
believe Asia is more important than Europe. This was by a margin of
51-to-38%. Better late than never, we western-shore types say.