It’s just over 40 years since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US personnel from Saigon, ended one of the most controversial chapters in recent US history. The Vietnam War was a creature of its time – a post-colonial independence movement that slowly morphed into one of the largest proxy conflicts of the Cold War. For the USA, it was an attempt to stop the spread of communist influence in Asia; the North Vietnamese saw it as the last stage in freeing their country of western rule. Regardless of the causes, it was a traumatic event that’s left an enduring mark on the American psyche. So, what are we to make of the fact that the US government started easing its ban on weapon sales to Vietnam last year?
The answer to that question obviously depends on your view of the situation in Southeast Asia and what you think the USA should be doing about it. Should the USA even be doing anything about it? Perhaps; perhaps not. There’s no appetite for direct intervention any more – the events of 1975 put the lid on that – but there are a lot of key US allies in the region. As America turns its focus to the growing economies of the Pacific it seems like a good idea to at least keep a protective eye on the country’s friends there. Is Vietnam a threat to those friends? The answer to that has to be a definite no.
Officially Vietnam is one of the world’s surviving one-party communist states but the reality is slightly different. It’s still one-party but isn’t recognizably communist any more. As long ago as 1992, political commentator PJ O’Rourke described Hanoi and Saigon as bustling capitalist cities where “the locals had let go of Karl Marx with both hands.” In 1990 the government reversed the nationalization of property, abolished price controls and liberalized the economy. Vietnam is now one of the fastest-developing countries in Asia.
And Vietnam is no friend of the USA’s greatest potential rival in the region – China. The two countries have a long and often tense history; before the French added Vietnam to its empire, the Chinese ruled it on and off for several hundred years and the Vietnamese never quite forgave them for it. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to remove the insane Khmer Rouge regime there. That annoyed China, who had been backing the murderous Pol Pot for years, and in retaliation they invaded northern Vietnam in February 1979. The Vietnamese fought back, ferociously. When the war ended a month later both sides claimed victory, but there were no Chinese troops left on Vietnamese soil and Hanoi’s army was still firmly in control of Cambodia. Draw your own conclusions about who won.
And it’s China that still occupies Vietnam’s attention today. One of the most destabilizing trends right now is Beijing’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea and Vietnam has a stake in that, most importantly around the Spratly Islands. There’s a real possibility of renewed conflict between the two nations, and if that were to happen the USA would be quietly but firmly on Vietnam’s side. The problem is that, while Vietnam’s armed forces are tough and professional, they lack modern equipment; while IWI has set up a factory in the country to replace the army’s AKs with Galils, and some small deliveries of more modern Russian equipment have been made since the 1990s, most of their inventory is Vietnam War-era Soviet and US kit. That puts them at a big disadvantage against the best equipped Chinese formations.
In 2014 the US partly lifted its ban on selling weapons to Vietnam, allowing some naval and air equipment to be sold. Officially, this was to recognize Vietnam’s improving human rights record, but it’s an open secret that the real reason is to stiffen Vietnam’s ability to resist Chinese pressure. Now there are calls for the administration to go further. Senator John McCain, speaking at the ISS summit, called on the White House to gradually dismantle the remaining restrictions apart from the ban on crowd control equipment. As a young A-4 Skyhawk pilot McCain was shot down near the North Vietnamese capital in October 1967 and spent more than five years imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was routinely tortured; it’s hard to write him off as an appeaser.
McCain’s appeal looks to be driven by a pragmatic assessment of the situation in the South China Sea, and he’s probably pushing at an open door. It’s very clearly not in the US’s interests for China to be able to intimidate its neighbors at will, and supplying modern weapons to Vietnam is a major step towards that. China has far larger armed forces to call on and the best units are much better equipped, but the bulk of the People’s Liberation Army has similar gear to the Vietnamese and history suggests that the NVA is better at using it. There’s no doubting Vietnam’s willingness to resist pressure and, if they have a technological edge as well, the Chinese are likely to think twice before treading on them. In the 20th century the USSR and China used Vietnam as a proxy against the west; now, in the 21st, the time might be right to turn it around on them.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.