Big shift for South East Asia

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To fully appreciate how Vietnam and the US established diplomatic relations, it is necessary to look back not fifteen years but twenty years and to recall the diplomatic process and the individuals that facilitated this achievement, which had significant implications for both our bilateral relationship as well as the entire Southeast Asia region.

AMB. Kenneth M. Quinn

Photo: -USA Magazine's special edition Vietnam-US: New Chronicle published in July, 2010 . " style="text-decoration:none"> AMB. Kenneth M. Quinn Photo: -USA Magazine's special edition Vietnam-US: New Chronicle published in July, 2010 .

At the outset, it needs to be recalled that in 1990, fifteen years after the end of the war, there was still great distrust in both capitals. A lack of understanding and any basis on which to have a dialogue between Hanoi and Washington, had kept the relationship frozen in time. For the United States, the critical issue had been achieving the fullest possible accounting for US military personnel who had not returned from Indochina after the war.

For Vietnam, it was important that the United States be willing to undertake efforts which could help “heal the wounds of war.” Both countries insisted that it must be the other which would take the first step in moving ahead. As a result, very little transpired in terms of making progress.

It was this political environment which I confronted when I became Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in June 1990. As it turned out, this became a period of significant "ferment", and the situation soon became ripe for diplomatic steps which could move the normalization process forward while allowing both countries to feel they were making progress toward their goals.

Finding a common objective – opposing the Khmer Rouge

Opposition to the Khmer Rouge became the issue on which Hanoi and Washington could firmly agree. This common objective became the basis for a more positive relationship.

One of the first and most significant steps in reshaping that diplomatic process came in the summer of 1990 when Secretary of State James Baker announced in Paris that the United States would no longer support the Khmer Rouge occupying the Cambodian seat at the UN. This step, approved by President George H.W. Bush, was a significant departure from the American policy of the past decade. From that day forward, conversations between Vietnamese and American diplomats could begin with an emphasis on this common objective.

At the same time, progress began to be made within the dialogue of the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council to structure an agreement to end the civil war in Cambodia and establish a new government through UN-organized democratic elections.

Another significant aspect of US diplomacy was provided by the leadership of General (ret.) Jack Vessey, the President’s Special Representative for POW/MIA accounting. His trips to Hanoi, (on several of which I accompanied him) gave new life to the dialogue between the US and Vietnam and led to new information being provided to the US about the fate of some American servicemen. Most importantly, the remains of some American personnel who were killed during the war were turned over to US personnel. In return, General Vessey brought news of the first ever contribution of humanitarian assistance to Vietnam in support of individuals who had lost limbs during the war. Soon Vietnam permitted US personnel to reside in Hanoi to lead in the search for POW/MIAs.

It is most important to note that the bipartisan efforts of Senator John McCain and Senator John Kerry were of critical importance to advancing the entire diplomatic process both in Washington and in Hanoi.

A Roadmap to Diplomatic Progress

During one of General Vessey’s trips, I had the opportunity to present to Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach the outline of this step-by-step approach which the US said it was committed to follow. It was called “The Road Map to Normalization.” On this document were outlined the steps which the US pledged it would take, as well as other specific steps that Vietnam could make.

“The Road Map” included actions in Vietnam and Cambodia. Most importantly, it eliminated the requirement that either side had to act first, and instead called for simultaneous actions by both parties. The “Road Map” thus showed a clear and distinct path on how the two countries could get to full establishment of diplomatic relations in several years time.

The Role of Individual Diplomats

One of the most significant steps taken was the US approval for Ambassador Le Bang (who was at that time a Vietnamese diplomat but not yet with ambassadorial rank) to come to Washington and to be associated with an American non-profit organization. This was not an insignificant step for Minister Thach to approve, since Le Bang did not have diplomatic immunity. Nonetheless, giving him the ability to assess the environment in the US proved invaluable, as it gave senior officials in Hanoi a firsthand assessment of the political realities under which US policy was being made.

In turn, the US sent a young diplomat, Scott Marciel (now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State) to reside and work in Hanoi. He also operated without diplomatic immunity. That there could be such a two-way informal exchange established to help build trust on both sides.

Vice Foreign Minister Le Mai also played an extremely important role. As the senior official responsible for American affairs in the MFA, he shaped the Vietnamese response to US requests for steps that might be taken in regard to POW/MIA matters, Cambodia and the human rights environment. One of his decisions provided a dramatic breakthrough in the relationship.

I distinctly recall my meeting with Vice Minister Le Mai in 1991 to seek information about photos which had appeared in the American press purportedly showing US prisoners during their captivity. Le Bang had returned to Hanoi and confirmed that the photos had generated significant Congressional interest, but there was considerable suspicion in Vietnam that this was just a ploy designed to pressure the Vietnamese government.

During my meeting, Le Mai asked if I wished to brief the press about Vietnam’s response about the search for this man. I replied that I did not, after which he briefed the press alone. When he returned to the room, he said, “I see you did not come here to embarrass us. Please tell me what place or prison you wish to search for the individual shown in this photo.” This was the first-ever authorization for any American government official to enter a Vietnamese prison to search for our missing men. Probably Le Mai was able to see our sincere desire for information.

The following day, I spent over two hours negotiating entirely in Vietnamese with Le Bang and other senior Vietnamese officials regarding the prison that US military representatives had identified as the one to which we wanted to be taken.

The US search took place shortly thereafter but no evidence of any US POW/MIAs was found; the photo was eventually found to be not of an American military man.

The result of this and other actions facilitated a number of other steps being taken which included the opening of a permanent US military search team office in Hanoi and the US initiating aid programs to assist with de-mining, as well as providing additional medical aid to individuals who had been hurt or maimed during the war.

Agreement on Cambodia Moves the Bilateral Process Ahead

Forward movement in the relationship in both Vietnam and Cambodia led to the eventual signing of the Cambodian peace agreement in Paris and the large-scale presence of UN peacekeeping forces in that country. A free and fair UN-administered election took place, which resulted in the return of King Sihanouk and the creation of a coalition government headed by Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen. This development in Cambodia, as well as significant movement in accounting for missing US servicemen in Vietnam, led to President Bill Clinton’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations, the opening of liaison offices in Hanoi and Washington, and then eventually, the establishment of full diplomatic relations and the exchange of Ambassadors in 1995.

Regional Impact

Beyond this bilateral impact, the Cambodian settlement also brought very significant change to the entire region. It facilitated the reopening of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China, as well as Vietnam and Japan. Vietnam also became a member of ASEAN. In addition, Cambodia reestablished a full range of diplomatic relations with countries in the region and from the West. Aid programs and business investment in both countries increased.

Vietnam and the US can view this accomplishment with great pride, realizing it would not have occurred without that basic agreement in 1990 between Hanoi and Washington to work together to destroy Khmer Rouge.

The economic development that has occurred in Vietnam and Cambodia as well as the peace and tranquility which has largely been in place throughout the region over the past 15 years largely can be attributed to this bilateral diplomatic process from 1990 to 1995.

Therefore, in looking back, it can be seen that not only have US-Vietnamese relations developed significantly over the past 15 years, but in addition, the diplomatic efforts between Hanoi and Washington between 1990 and 1994 brought about a major transformation of the political and economic situation for all of Southeast Asia.

* Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from 1990 to 1994 responsible for relations with Southeast Asia. He was chair of the US Government Inter-Agency Committee on POW/MIAs during that same period. From 1996 to 1999, he was US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Soource: Vietnam-USA Magazine's special edition: Vietnam-US: New Chronicle published in July, 2010 .

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