In mid-1995, the United States opened a diplomatic mission in Hanoi, in part to assist American businesses eager to join Vietnam's economic boom. Then, in late May 1996, the United States announced that the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam since the war would be Congressman Douglas Peterson, a former prisoner of war. This was a clear sign that the U.S. government acknowledges the bitterness that still remains within many Americans, but that like all prior wars, the interests of the nation are best served by helping our former enemies rebuild. A permanent presence in Vietnam provides support for U.S. businesses, and ensures encouragement for Vietnamese officials committed to moving their country toward a free-market economy. Defense attaches reassure the Vietnamese of our peaceful intent, and can help break down the barriers that have stood between the Vietnamese leaders, most of whom have military experience, and their Western counterparts. Our embassy in Hanoi is staffed with a Defense Attaché, a U.S. Army colonel; now it is time to nominate a U.S. Naval Attaché to Vietnam.
Throughout its history, Vietnam has been dependent upon trade, most of which took advantage of the country's excellent seaports and proximity to the world's busiest sealanes. During the past decade, Vietnam has rebuilt its thriving fishing industry, expanded its maritime trade of agricultural goods, and made a strong commitment to developing petroleum interests off its eastern shores and in the Spratly Island chain. Oil and other maritime resources are key concerns for Vietnam—decisive factors behind any future military action in Southeast Asia. American businesses already are engaged in oil exploration in Vietnamese waters and soon will match the heavy Japanese investment in shipping and port facility development. A large portion of the $14 billion in foreign investment that has flowed into Vietnam over the past eight years has been targeted at exploiting these largely untapped natural resources. Vietnam is anxious to take advantage of its extensive maritime potential and a friendly, open relationship with the U.S. Navy will serve both our nations' interests.
Despite the U.S. fixation on the war, it is no more than a short chapter in Vietnam's centuries-long struggle for security. More than half of Vietnam's 72 million people were not yet born when that war ended and—like many of their elders—are favorably disposed toward Americans. They also have long recognized the Chinese as their greatest enemy. The Vietnamese Navy lost several ships in a 1988 scuffle with the Chinese South Sea Fleet in the Spratly Islands, and undoubtedly their leadership was very concerned with Beijing's 1995 proclamation of sovereignty over all the South China Sea. That concern probably peaked when China faced off with Taiwan in March 1996. Vietnam is likely to see the U.S. Navy as a positive balance against growing Chinese hegemony in the region. Stronger ties with the U.S. Navy could build more confidence in the U.S. commitment to protect the status quo in Asia and—though a bitter pill for a few old-timers in Hanoi—provides many strategic benefits. Since the U.S. officially recognizes no specific claims in the Spratly Islands, our third-party, trusted agent position may open avenues for mediating misunderstandings arising between the claimants. If tensions build in the region, as they periodically have, U.S. Navy contact with senior officers of the Vietnamese Navy could prove quite beneficial for both nations.
It is clear that under present conditions the Vietnamese government may be quite receptive to U.S. naval representation in-country. Similarly, our own national interests also make this the right time to nominate a Naval Attaché to Vietnam. The first order of business would be to build trust between the U.S. mission, the Vietnamese Navy, and appropriate civilian ministries. The attaché also would be helpful in ensuring that the interests of Americans involved in maritime exploration and offshore development were protected.
Finally, while the relationship matures slowly, near-term port calls by U.S. Seventh Fleet ships could quickly cement the bonds of friendship as Vietnamese naval officers and other government officials tour U.S. Navy ships and receive the customary briefings and ballcaps. In an era of fiscal restraint and diminished operating funds, there also is value in exploring aircraft and ship refueling agreements, and as we begin the next century, small-scale passing exercises and crew exchanges may be possible. The first step, however, is securing full-time representation of the U.S. Navy in Hanoi.
Lieutenant Commander Shanower is a naval intelligence officer assigned to the Joint Intelligence Center at Yokota Air Force Base, Japan.