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US and Vietnam: – from bitter foes to regional partners

IN the same spirit as his visit to Cuba last December, United States (US) President Barack Obama went to Hanoi, Vietnam, last Monday. As the visit to Cuba ended five decades of Cold War hostility between the two Western Hemisphere neighbors, the visit to Hanoi sought to transform an old enemy in the Vietnam War of 1958-1975 into a new partner for peace in our part of the world.

The Vietnam War is said to be the longest war in American history and it bitterly divided the American public in its time. So many American soldiers died in the fighting that began in 1958, when the US supported South Vietnam against the invading North Vietnamese seeking to unite the country after the French colonial period. In 1968, after the Tet Offensive by the North, Americans at home began to turn against the war, with widespread anti-war protests in American college campuses.

The Philippines too was in the Vietnam War, with President Ferdinand Marcos sending 2,000 “combat engineers” reportedly in response to a US offer of considerable aid, including some patrol boats, weapons and ammunition for one battalion combat team, and equipment for an engineer construction battalion. Reflecting the growing opposition to the war in America, the Philippine participation also came to be widely criticized by Philippine opposition leaders.

By the time the war ended with the South surrendering in 1975, 58,000 American lives had been lost along with 350,000 wounded casualties. The Vietnamese suffered one to two million deaths, but they had won the war, which was widely seen as the first one the US had ever lost.

All this is now history. Today the Philippines and Vietnam are fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with a common concern with protecting their interests in the South China Sea. The two countries have a memorandum of understanding for information sharing between the Philippine Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy. Last November, two Vietnamese Navy frigates made port call at the Manila South Harbor in a goodwill visit.

Vietnam has been referred to as the only Communist military ally of the Philippines.

At the start of his three-day visit to Hanoi last Monday, President Obama told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that his visit was a symbol of the strengthening ties made in the last several decades. President Obama announced the full lifting of a US arms embargo, the last vestige of the war between the two nations. Vietnam is now seen as a vital plank in America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

From bitter foes to warm friends, close trading partners, and regional allies for peace and security in this part of the world – that has been the story of US-Vietnam relations, and President Obama’s landmark visit highlighted this growing closeness, cooperation, and understanding this week.