The proponents of trade wherever, whenever, whoever tell us that Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was taken aback at the reception he received this past week. For he was treated, at the State Dept., and elsewhere like a chief of government or state rather than the head of one of the most corrupt and repressive political organizations in the world.
The rationalization we are getting for all this pomp and circumstance was that fetting Phu Trong was throwing a little sand into Beijing’s eyes. The theory thereby being expounded was that with the continuing aggressive Chinese thrusts into the South China Sea – even a drilling rig in Hanoi’s claimed economic zone – Washington was demonstrating the growing tacit alliance with Vietnam as well as the other Southeast Asians against Beijing’s threatened aggression. Presidential candidate, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called it the pivot to Asia which has creaked rather violently as the Mideast continues to enthrall the U.S. in its tortured problems.
Of course, the fact that Boeing – probably with the dying Ex-Im Bank’s help – has just made a big sale to the Vietnamese might explain more than either State Dept. Protocol officers. Pres. Obama turned up at State. [Sec. John Kerry who once testified against his fellow American soldiers in Vietnam, if in camouflage, at a Congressional hearing was too busy trying to make a deal with the Tehran Mullahs in Lausanne.]
Obama told the gathering at State that “[O]bviously, there has been a difficult history between our two countries in the 20th century.” That could go down as the understatement of the year; one would have hoped a speechwriter even at this White House might have chosen a more profound reference to “a difficult history” that cost more than 54,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives.
True, history marches as they say, and it is probably time to try to reach some sort of working relationship with Hanoi that fits into the current and future Asian and world geopolitical picture. Obama claimed “what we’ve seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefitted the peoples of both countries.”
Maybe. But we are old enough to be uncomfortable with a former enemy who still shows every sign of not mending his ways. Persecution of the religious and all political opposition is still the way Phu Trong’s comrades run the Vietnam they reunited with force in 1975. Corruption is so rife foreign investors shy away from moving there even with the increasing flight from China because of rising costs and the same sort of difficulties as Vietnam presents. The $7 billion in remittances this year from the huge and relatively prosperous Vietnamese American community are a big part of keeping the whole gimcrackery afloat.
All in all, we think it’s best if the President – and those minions at State always willing to find diplomatic compromise – remember the old adage, “When supping with the devil …”