John McCain and the Opening of Vietnam
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

John McCain and the Opening of Vietnam

Sep. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

One of the most fascinating elements of the global reaction to the recent death of US Senator John McCain has been the reaction from Vietnam. Foreign observers who are not aware of the deep complexity of US-Vietnam relations have been surprised by the sad and respectful reactions from the senior Vietnamese leadership and the public, especially given McCain’s status as one of the most visible American faces of the Vietnam War. As Xuan Loc Doan recounts:

“In an interview with state-run Voice of Vietnam (VOV) radio service a day after his death, Vietnam’s ambassador to the US, Ha Kim Ngoc, described him as a friend who was well liked by the Vietnamese people. On August 27, two of Vietnam’s top four leaders, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and National Assembly (the country’s parliament) Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan sent messages of condolence to McCain’s family and leaders of the US Senate … On the same day, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh paid respects to McCain at the US embassy in Hanoi, the country’s capital. In state-run media outlets and especially on social media, the former POW turned politician has been affectionately talked about, with some even calling for a street in Hanoi to be named after him.”

The affection of the Vietnamese people for McCain — their former wartime enemy-turned-POW — stems from his long-term efforts at securing the normalization of US-Vietnam relations. As Vietnamese historian Duong Trung Quoc observes: “There is a paradox in the relationship between Vietnam and the US, that is those who once fought during the Vietnam War became the pioneers in healing bilateral relations.” The economic take-off experienced by Vietnam following normalization had led to significant material improvements in the lives of the ordinary Vietnamese people, and their reactions to McCain’s death reflects their recognition of his role in ensuring their country’s economic progress.

In his op-ed in the Washington Post on May 21, 1995 calling for the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, McCain urged the US to “relinquish its lingering resentments from the war.” Among the reasons he highlighted for the normalization of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations, McCain warned that “given China’s growing economic and military might … the United States will likely confront China as our number one security problem,” and that as such, “it is … absolutely in our national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor.”

McCain’s assessment would turn out to be prescient. Following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US, Vietnam enjoyed an economic take-off and became one of the most forceful Southeast Asian challengers to China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea. During the period of the Obama administration, Vietnam occupied a key position in the US’ pivot to Asia — a strategy that has been understood as an attempt to contain China’s rise — and was also one of the participating states in the US-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership a regional free trade agreement that conspicuously excluded China. Vietnam’s economic boom following normalization has been reflected in the favorable perceptions of the Vietnamese people towards the US. As Cary Huang noted in 2017, “recent opinion polls have suggested that the US is the most favored country of the Vietnamese and China the least favored. Last year, a Pew survey found 84 per cent of Vietnamese viewed America favorably, up from 76 per cent in 2014; only 10 per cent of them viewed China favorably, down from 16 per cent.”

Vietnam’s rise to a position of strength where it can act to defend its economic progress even with the withdrawal of US leadership should be recognized as one of John McCain’s most important legacies.

The normalization of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations was not easy to achieve, especially given the angry divisions within the US over the bitter legacy of the US defeat in the Vietnam War. Such divisions could especially be seen in the community of war veterans: “the American Legion, America’s largest veteran organization with many members who fought in Vietnam, was strongly opposed to the normalization of bilateral relations, while the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents 600,000 who served during the Vietnam War, supported McCain’s efforts.” On Capitol Hill, Senator McCain was one of the key leaders of the effort to pursue normalization, and at times he had to intervene in the legislative process to remove roadblocks to normalization.

For example, in June 1995, Senators Bob Dole and Bob Smith introduced a resolution “to deny the President the funds necessary to establish an embassy in Vietnam.” McCain and fellow Vietnam veteran Senator John Kerry responded by introducing “an amendment to the State Department Authorization Act that called for unconditional establishment of full diplomatic relations with Vietnam” (Stern, 2005, p. 64). As James Carroll recalls, the joint efforts of McCain and Kerry had given President Bill Clinton the political backing needed to lift the trade embargo on Vietnam a year earlier in 1994; their support would be needed again in 1995 for Clinton to decide on normalization. In President Clinton’s July 11, 1995 announcement of the normalization of relations with Vietnam, he highlighted the work of the Vietnam veterans in the US Congress who had pushed for normalization — listing Senator McCain first for being “able to move beyond the haunting and painful past toward finding common ground for the future,” and for “giving the opportunity to Vietnam to fully join the community of nations.”

Following normalization, Vietnam experienced an economic take-off: “investment began to flow in and trade with the US and other Western allies began to grow rapidly. Vietnam’s communist leaders embraced capitalism and the country now has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, expanding 6.8 percent in the second quarter.” The ordinary Vietnamese people have benefited from this economic boom, and “the per-capita income of Vietnamese has more than quadrupled … in the past two decades.” As one of the Vietnamese people who paid their respects at the McCain memorial in Hanoi explained: “Although he was once our enemy, he did a lot to help restore relations between the US and Vietnam. That helped open the economy and improved our lives dramatically. We owe him for that.”

Indeed, the benefits of economic growth under the conditions of capitalism have had a dramatic impact on the attitudes of the Vietnamese people, especially those who lived through the economic deprivations prior to normalization: “Polls by Pew also suggest nearly all Vietnamese people 95 per cent support capitalism. No other country polled was beyond 90 per cent, even the US. Some Vietnamese even imagine that if the US and South Vietnam had won, Vietnam would now be better off as it would be in line with capitalist societies like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.”

Now that McCain is gone, Vietnam has lost an important supporter in the US. This is especially significant given China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea as well as the inward-looking protectionist trend introduced in the US by the Trump administration. However, Vietnam has grown to a position where it can work to maintain progress even if the US under the Trump administration is unwilling to lead. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good example.

Despite the Trump administration withdrawing the US from the agreement and almost killing it, Vietnam and the other TPP signatories moved on from the setback and negotiated a successor agreement to the TPP that did not include the US the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The World Bank estimates that the CPTPP has the potential to “increase Vietnam’s GDP by 1.1 percent by 2030. Assuming a modest boost to productivity, the estimated increase of GDP would amount to 3.5 percent from CPTPP.” Vietnam’s rise to a position of strength where it can act to defend its economic progress even with the withdrawal of US leadership should be recognized as one of John McCain’s most important legacies.


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