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Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

Guess who's suddenly inviting Uncle Sam to dinner?


LOS ANGELES — Real-life diplomacy reveals, as Lord Palmerston, twice British prime minister (1855-8, 1859-65), famously put it: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." Over the decades the Palmerston Principle has proven relevant to other countries in their foreign relations, including the United States.

In our case, of course, we are notorious for our swoons of idealism but we can be brought down to earth by changes in reality. Case in point: the astonishing evolution of U.S. relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Vietnam today, like so much of Asia, is on a roll. Although its per-capita income is less right now than even the Philippines', it is growing. Its population is three times that of Peru, a quarter more than France's, more than double that of Canada's, and almost four times that of Australia's. Its economic reforms are starting to release its workforce from the prison of socialism.

The last time I was in Vietnam, you I felt no society of dead souls but a vibrant culture on the move. Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon, as most call it) felt to me like the surging South Korean capital of Seoul in the nineties. But it wasn't until President Clinton's official visit to Vietnam in 2000 that the big chill with the U.S. began to snap.

For decades it was a very tough country to like, to be sure. In the American political language at one time, the seven-letter word Vietnam had all but morphed into a dirty four-letter one — synonymous for something between nightmare and quagmire. By 1975, when the U.S. finally gave up the war there, after more than 58,000 of its soldiers had died and many times that returned a physical and/or psychological mess, Americans hoped they would not hear of Vietnam ever again.

But our distaste for anything Vietnamese has passed. Veterans who lost limbs or suffer even today from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can never, understandably, forget. But America is surely the globe's leader in historical memory loss. Often this is a bad thing. But in the case of Vietnam, it's probably for the best.

At the APEC summit in Honolulu, Vietnam's representatives, which joined the economic forum in 1998, hobnobbed with the 20 other members, including President Barack Obama from the U.S., an original 1989 founding member. Once again Vietnam made clear its comfort level with the U.S. Consider that at one time the Vietnamese could not wait for us to leave their country. Now they sometimes act as if they cannot get enough of us. They even want the U.S. to use a base of theirs.

Vietnam's ardor for hooking up with its former mortal enemy has risen as its history-embedded wariness about China has intensified. Everyone in Asia knows that China is now the big man on the block. But Beijing's advertised policy of "peaceful rising" would be viewed, from the various self-interested perspectives of its Asian neighbors, as much more charming and convincing if it would knock off the occasional and unnecessary naval bullying. That's why countries wish to take out a U.S. insurance policy — geopolitical accident insurance, as it were.

America faces serious dangers in allowing its national interests to be drawn too closely into those of others. Vietnam has a border with China; we have colossal loans owed the Chinese! We need to work our way through Asia without seriously antagonizing anyone. Good relations with China are an absolute priority for the U.S.

The new U.S. focus on Asia is wonderful to behold. President Barack Obama's trade-barrier busting efforts at APEC (which includes Peru as a member, as well as Russia) are a great start. The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership in the making would represent economies totaling something like 40% of the global economy.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century, the world's strategic and economic center of gravity, will be the Asia-Pacific from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas." This comes from none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and hasn't she be doing an excellent job), speaking during the past weekend summit in Hawaii.

We folks on these very western shores — especially right here in Los Angeles — have known this to be the case for quite some time. But Washington's head has been stuck in the Middle East and European quicksand. It is now shaking some of the sandy past off and looking around at the new reality and how it can best fit in and lead. U.S public opinion is changing, too. A survey, Transatlantic Trends 2011, reports that for the first time a majority of Americans believe Asia is more important than Europe. This was by a margin of 51-to-38%. Better late than never, we western-shore types say.

Veteran journalist Tom Plate is the author of the 'Giants of Asia' book series and is now working on the next volume on former South Korean foreign minister and current secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon. © 2011, Pacific Perspectives Media Center.


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