A diplomatic snowstorm:

Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte’s cancelled trip to Vietnam


Original version in Vietnamese by Tran Binh Nam

Translated into English by Ton That Dien


According to the schedule, the Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte would pay a 2-day visit to Vietnam beginning January 18, 2008 following the regular biannual meeting between the Chinese and US high-ranking officials in China. Due to China’s recent claim of the Spratly Islands, many observers regarded his visit to Vietnam as critical to the situation of the Southeast Asia-Pacific area and the relations between America, China, and Vietnam.

Without fanfare, however on 1-18-2006, the US Embassy in Hanoi announced that Negroponte’s planned visit was cancelled because of ‘snowstorm’ in Guizhou, a southern city of China where Negroponte had meet with his Chinese counterpart. Nobody believed the announced reason for the cancellation of Mr. Negroponte trip to Vietnam. In this modern time, and for the second highest state official of a superpower in the world, such a natural obstacle could be easily overcome.

There may be three explanations for the cancellation of the trip:

1) US unilateral decision. This is hard to believe regarding the current good relationship between US and Vietnam.

 2) Recommendation from China to Negroponte. This is quite impossible due to the delicate diplomatic protocol (for China) and the superpower self-esteem (for the US); and

3) Ha Noi requested for a delay that led to Negroponte’s decision to cancel it altogether. This probably may be the case. China may advise Vietnam with pressure to delay Negroponte’s visit until after its Deputy Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Gia Khiem’s return from his visit to China from 22 to 26 of January. If so China has again scored another point against the US and Vietnam as it did in 2007 when Vietnam's Chief of State Nguyen Minh Triet had to make a sudden unplanned trip to China prior to his US official visit.

Another aspect of the visit of Negroponte would enter into the picture. On January 19, 2008 when the Vietnamese inside the country as well as overseas commemorating the naval battle between the Chinese and the Republic of Vietnam Navy 34 years ago, in which the Chinese defeated Vietnam to take over the Paracel Islands, the presence of Negroponte in Hanoi as scheduled (January 18 -21, 2008) would raise a controversial question: Would his visit have anything to do with the US-China strategy in the Spratleys issue?  Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State under Nixon recounted vaguely in his book “Years of Upheaval” that during his visit to Beijing on November 10, 1973, some kind of unwritten agreement had been reached for the Chinese to take over the Paracels, in anticipation of Hanoi reunification of Vietnam. Chinese at that time had good relations with the US and a staunch enemy against the then Soviet Union, while Hanoi was a good client of the Soviet Union.

Of course, the geopolitics of today between the US, China, and Vietnam is quite different with that of the 1970’s. The game that the US may play is no longer similar to that in 1974, and the current relationships between US, China and Vietnam suggest the US would help Vietnam to keep the Spratleys out of China’s hands. That could be a subject of discussion between Negroponte and Hanoi during his planned visit.

In the last four years, the diplomatic wind has changed the direction. Vietnam has inched closer and closer to the US while exercising caution in its relation with China. Many high-ranking officials of Vietnam have visited the capitals of the US and China. 

In November 2003 Vietnam’s Secretary of Defense Pham Van Tra visited Washington D.C. followed by the visits of Premier Phan Van Khai in June 2005, then Premier Nguyen Tan Dung in January 2007, and Chief of State Nguyen Minh Triet in June 2007.

On the US part, the modern US Ship Vandergrift docked in Saigon on December 2003, whose sailors in white uniforms on Saigon streets somehow cleared away the bad memories and hard feelings of the past bloody war between two countries. Then came US good gesture to Hanoi late in November 2006 when President George W. Bush visited Hanoi on his occasion of attending the annual APEC meeting. On this occasion, President Bush had removed Vietnam from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), even Vietnam had made no real progress in its policies toward religions. After returning from Hanoi, he had helped Vietnam to become a WTO member.

All these ties mean that Hanoi leaders have sensed the need to strategically siding with the US to balance China’s pressure.

The US, however, remains silent in regards to China’s decision to annex administratively the Paracels  and the Spratleys in December 2007; while it was no doubt that, both archipelagoes are equally important to it as they are to China. Both islands, beside from being in the proximity to the strategic seaway between Malacca Straits and Northern Pacific, are lying on a pocket of significant volumes of natural gas and crude oil, a valuable world resources for decades to come.

In claiming the two groups of islands, China seemed to intentionally let Vietnam know of its dissatisfaction for Hanoi's moving closer to the US, and to simultaneously caution the US that it was ready to widen its ‘espace vitale’ and accept challenges from the US Navy. As a result, Admiral Timothy Keaty, Commander of US forces in the Pacific, paid a visit to Vietnam after the annexation without the media learning much about his mission there. Chances were the Admiral came to Vietnam because of the question of Spratlys, as well as the agenda of the Deputy Secretary Negroponte.

Hanoi’s indecision has probably been an obstruction. All of its top leaders have kept their mouth shut, except permitting the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry to state repeatedly in public that the Spratleys were historically until now part of Vietnam.

In its side, Chinese remained cautious, mainly because China has been busy with its preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The situation might be different in 2009 though, and if the Chinese resort to force to enforce its annexation of Spratlys it would be too late for Vietnam to defend the country. Now it could be that Hanoi chose to do nothing just to avoid to jeopardize its relations with China with unpleasant consequences. It could also be that Vietnam was trying to guess what the US was going to act.

In a national crisis, especially when facing an invasion, it is important for the leaders of Vietnam to unite to be able to devise ways to defend effectively the country. Signs have shown, unfortunately, that they have been deeply divided between those advocating peaceful tactics in dealing with China and those leaning toward asking for international assistance (namely the US). It is the division that has been paralyzed the Vietnamese leadership so far.

According to Vietnam's historical experiences, for long-term national security, it is better to use a reconciliatory strategy to deal with China. History however, also teaches that reconciliatory attitude will be successful only after China had been badly defeated militarily. The current leaders of Vietnam, due to internal indecision found themselves in a coined situation. They simply did not do what should be done in this situation. Strongly reaffirm Vietnam's sovereignty over the islands by the national Congress is one thing. Meanwhile, they must motivate the whole people to stand up to defend the country through political openness with adequate freedom of speech. They have nothing to fear the people. Internationally they must look for allies, including first the US, then India, Australia, the ASEAN bloc and the European Union. It should also modernize the armed force, specially the Navy. With right diplomacy, they could do all these things while still maintaining good relations with China.

China’s 4000-year history proved that when it is strong and unified, it attempts to expand. Vietnam was its victim several times in the past, but thanks to the people’s determination, we succeeded in defeating China in every single case. This time, after four centuries in obscurity and humiliated by western countries, China is again on the rise and its ambition of expansion is reborn. From late 1950, China has designed a plan to dominate Vietnam, bit by bit.

Vietnam now is really facing a huge danger of losing its entity (like Tibet) if an unforeseen world event forces the Chinese to occupy Vietnam under the pretext of self-defense.  The current communist leaders have no plan to face this sad eventuality.

A clear proof is the circumstances around the cancellation of the Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte to Vietnam on January 18, 2008./.


Tran Binh Nam

January 19, 2008

(In memory of the Paracels battle 34 years ago)

Translated into English by Ton That Dien








Trần Bình Nam