REFLECTIONS ON A GALA EVENING IN HANOI

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The new US ambassador to Vietnam sees the former enemy as an important strategic ally in the face of Chinese regional ambitions.

NEW FRIENDSHIPS IN A TROUBLED REGION

Last night we had the pleasure of participating in a grand Gala Event at the pompous new Marriott Hotel in Hanoi, celebrating the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two former enemies.

It was a hyper prominent event, led by Vietnam’s deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and the new US ambassador Ted Osius with an audience of 500, including ambassadors, high ranking Vietnamese officials and practically all CEO’s in town.

The speeches were more than cordial. The Deputy Prime Minister did not utter one word about another upcoming event: The 40th anniversary of the end of, what he would have called ‘The American War’, as you say in a country that have suffered so many different wars that it does not make sense to speak about ‘The Vietnam War’.

Instead, Pham Binh Minh devoted his remarks entirely to all the positive aspects of Vietnam’s growing relationship with the US. He dwelled on the fact that the US is now Vietnam’s biggest export market. He thanked the US for the ever increasing number of Vietnamese students allowed into US universities.

Pham Minh Binh expressed his hopes for US support to Vietnamese interests in the region – and not least in the current diplomatic entanglements regarding the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which could be one of the biggest trade agreements ever, if it materialises.

Ambassador Ted Osius was equally forthcoming in his speech, stressing Vietnam’s importance as an economic and strategic partner.  And of course, who would have expected anything else at a Gala event?

The elephant in the room

The interesting thing is that this recurrent commercial tuxedo party now takes place with such high level participation.  This year’s Gala Event can only be seen as a clear signal to the invisible elephant in the grand ballroom of the Marriott: An elephant of Chinese origin.

Gone are the days, when a US ambassador would take the floor in Hanoi, and justify his barrage of criticism  by telling Vietnamese officials that he represented ‘democracy at work’, like one of Ted Osius’ predecessors, ambassador Raymond Burghardt did little more than a decade ago at a conference at the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

Burghardt, a former junior diplomat at the US Embassy in wartime Saigon, was shot down in flames verbally by a Vietnamese official, who sarcastically thanked the  ambassador and the US for making sure that his country had learned to appreciate peace and independence.

Vietnam and the US are clearly moving closer together in the face of China’s increasingly ambitious regional policies. Last year’s controversy about the Chinese oil rig within, what Vietnam’s sees as its territory, is only the most visible example of the increased tension in the region.

“When I fought the American soldiers, I would never have imagined them to become our friends. But this is how I see the US today,” a high ranking member of Dang Cong San – Vietnam’s communist party – said last night.

This afternoon I spoke with another veteran, who spent most of his life working for the revolution as a commissar, building up a socialist administration in Southern Vietnam after the war.

“We were right in fighting the Americans during the war. But we took the wrong path, when trying to build a Soviet style economy after the war.  We would have been better off with the kind of socialism that some of the Nordic countries in Europe are famous for in Vietnam.

I still have some reasons to hate America for all the suffering during the war. But if the world needs a policeman, I want it to be America, not China,” the veteran said with a grin.

I am pretty sure he represents a very common view among the Vietnamese today.

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