While the debate over American strategy in the Vietnam War has been long and bitter, it has also been strangely constricted. This stems in part from the fact it has largely been an anguished dialogue among Americans searching for the reasons which underlay their nation’s defeat. This means that a lot of research into the Vietnam War ultimately seems to boil down to a search for villains – be they firepower-mad generals, feckless politicians, or corrupt and incompetent local allies.
In their joint RSIS Commentary entitled “South China Sea Disputes: China has evidence of Historical Claims”, Dr Li Dexia and researcher Tan Keng Tat asserted that “China’s territorial claim is based on centuries of verifiable historical records, long-term use, treaties, international/customary laws plus records from the prodigious sea voyages of the Yuan and Ming dynasties”. I argue, however, that these evidences are unconvincing in the framework of international law.
Last Wednesday, Vietnam feted the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu. But earlier that week, Hanoi lodged a protest against Beijing for allowing a Chinese offshore oil rig to drill in the waters near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam. Hanoi also complained that Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese coast guard vessels which were dispatched to the oil rig site on Sunday. Several Vietnamese sailors suffered minor injuries. Fortunately, the outcome of the incident was far less severe than Vietnam’s March 1988 naval clash with China in which 70 Vietnamese personnel were killed and three ships lost after Chinese forces fired on them near Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The Vietnam “story” has changed over time. First, it was a war story; then Vietnam became “a country” in the run-up to the normalization of US-Vietnam relations in 1995. Now the country is moving forward with a new narrative, a strategy of active and proactive international integration.
The country’s top foreign policy makers have decided it is time for Vietnam to fully launch itself into the international arena. In a conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations last year, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said, “This was a turning point in our foreign policy, because before we focused on economic integration, but now we also integrate in all areas such as not only economic but politics, diplomacy, security, defense, culture and social effects.”