This Week in Asia

After his capture while fighting for the communists during the Vietnam war, Nguyen Duc Gan endured four years of brutal captivity in a POW camp run by the US-allied South Vietnamese.

Today, Nguyen, 72, holds no grudge against the Americans. In fact, he is excited to welcome President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Hanoi for their second summit on denuclearisation this week.

"I read newspapers and US media does not like him, but I find Trump to be a great man," says Nguyen, who was rounded up in Saigon in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, which marked a turning point in the war in favour of the North Vietnamese.

For many Vietnamese, the summit is a chance to showcase their country not only as a vibrant economy that escaped the shadow of war and international isolation, but a peace broker that turned its old enemy, the US, into a friend.

"Our nation's destiny used to be decided in meeting overseas like in Geneva but now we are happy to see Hanoi be a neutral city for peace and stability," says Nguyen, referring to the 1954 Geneva Accords which saw the end of French rule in Vietnam but resulted in the division that led to the Vietnam war.

Hanoi and Washington normalised relations in 1995, two decades after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam launched a successful invasion to reunify with the US-backed South.

Some 2 million civilians and 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed in fighting between 1954 and 1975, according to Vietnamese government estimates. Up to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and more than 58,000 American troops lost their lives, according to US figures.

But ties between the former foes have gone from strength to strength since they established diplomatic relations in what then US president Bill Clinton described as an "opportunity to bind up our own wounds."

"Vietnamese leaders and the majority of the public have always considered Vietnam the winning side in the Vietnam war, therefore Vietnam generally did not hold any grudge against the US and was pretty quick in approaching the US right after the war," says Viet Phuong Nguyen, a research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

T-shirts with portraits of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on sale in Hanoi. Photo: AP

Since the lifting of a US trade embargo in 1994, after Vietnamese authorities helped account for American soldiers who went missing in action, bilateral trade has exploded more than 100 times " topping US$54 billion in 2017.

Today, Vietnam, which embraced free market economic reforms known as doi moi in the 1980s, is among the fastest-growing economies in Asia, with growth of more than 7 per cent last year.

Hanoi has also ramped up security cooperation with Washington as a counter to growing regional assertiveness by Beijing, with which it fought several border skirmishes from 1979-91 and has competing claims in the South China Sea. Although Hanoi and Beijing normalised relations in 1991 and have sought to expand economic ties in recent years, the relationship continues to be affected by territorial disagreements.

"People in our country also like Trump because he is driving China into a corner and China is very worried about Trump's strategy against China," says Dinh Hoang Thang, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the Netherlands, referring to Washington's tough posture on trade.

In 2016, outgoing US president Barack Obama announced an end to a US prohibition on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam while on a visit to Hanoi, casting the ban as a "lingering vestige of the cold war".

Trump held talks with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang in the capital the following year, during which the leaders expressed their shared belief in "free and open access to the South China Sea".

Last year, the USS Carl Vinson made a historic port of call at the central coastal city of Da Nang, the first such visit by a US aircraft carrier since the end of the Vietnam war.

Like Washington, Hanoi views with suspicion island-building and other moves by Beijing to assert control over the South China Sea, through which an estimated US$3-US$5 trillion worth of cargo passes annually.

China's deployment of an oil rig in the disputed waters in 2014 sparked riots across Vietnam that resulted in the deaths of two Chinese and prompted Beijing to charter flights to evacuate its nationals.

A man takes photos of the International Media Centre in Hanoi. Photo: Xinhua

For many Vietnamese, conflict with the US is in the past, while the threat of Chinese expansionism feels like a clear and present danger. In a 2017 Pew survey, just 10 per cent of Vietnamese expressed a favourable view of China, down from 16 per cent three years previously. By contrast, 84 per cent of those polled had a positive impression of the US.

"China always bullies and threatens Vietnam but now is being bullied itself by the US," says Nguyen Trung Thanh, a taxi driver in Hanoi. "China should learn about the feeling of being threatened and bullied so they understand our feelings when they bully and threaten us."

In Hanoi, goodwill toward the North Korean leader is not hard to find either. Le Dang Doanh, a retired senior economic adviser to five Vietnamese prime ministers, says the Kim family has never been stigmatised in Vietnam because of the historical fraternity between the two communist states.

"Mr Kim is a very young man, and Mr Kim inherits the traditional long term friendship between Vietnam and North Korea, and I think the family of Kim is well regarded in Vietnam," he says.

Nguyen, the research fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, says that the Trump-Kim summit, which comes eights months after the leaders signed a vague agreement on denuclearisation in Singapore, could mark the start of even warmer relations between Hanoi and Washington.

"By choosing Hanoi to be the location of his meeting with Kim, Trump shows that he, and the US to some extent, trusts Vietnam with such an important event to Trump's political agenda," he says.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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