A mo­ment to imag­ine S. Viet­nam

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY JOHN J. MET­ZLER

It’s been 40 years since the wars in In­dochina ended and the cur­tain dropped ush­er­ing in a new pe­riod of dark­ness for the peo­ple of Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia. Four long decades since the stunning im­agery of North Viet­namese tanks smash­ing through the gates of Saigon’s Doc Lap In­de­pen­dence Palace seiz­ing the South Viet­namese cap­i­tal, end­ing the decades­long war, and bring­ing forcible re­uni­fi­ca­tion by the com­mu­nists to the di­vided na­tion.

For Amer­ica the po­lit­i­cally di­vi­sive con­flict was over, the page turned, and the book was shelved. For the Viet­namese, and even more so for the be­lea­guered Cam­bo­di­ans, a new level of hell was about to begin in 1975.

Many peo­ple know the nar­ra­tive which has be­come fuzzy or by­passed by the march of time. Amer­i­can troops had al­ready been with­drawn from South Viet­nam by 1973 and thus the stunning de­feat of the Saigon gov­ern­ment by a mas­sive North Viet­namese con­ven­tional of­fen­sive be­tween Fe­bru­ary and April was not, as many glibly claim, a de­feat of U.S. forces.

But let me now di­gress from events to imag­ine for a mo­ment what could have hap­pened, and may have tran­spired if the North Viet­namese had abided by the U.S.-ne­go­ti­ated Paris Peace agree­ments in 1973 which should have stopped the mil­i­tary con­flict, en­sured a cease-fire, and al­lowed the sur­vival of South Viet­nam.

Con­sider an­other di­vided na­tion, Korea, to see my the­sis. Here too a his­toric na­tion was ar­bi­trar­ily di­vided when Dean Rusk drew the line at the 38th par­al­lel at the end of WWII. North and South Korea, which had en­dured Ja­panese colo­nial­ism, were now free but sep­a­rated by two an­tag­o­nis­tic gov­ern­ments. Af­ter the hor­rors of the Korean War (1950-1953), the ten­u­ous peace held. Both the com­mu­nist North and free South Korean states de­vel­oped separately.

But here’s the point; a ris­ing Phoenix of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and pros­per­ity took hold in South Korea through the 1960s and 1970s. South Korea suc­cess­fully hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and had emerged as an East Asian tiger econ­omy. Po­lit­i­cal de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion had taken root by the late 1980s and has flour­ished ever since.

So here’s my ques­tion. View­ing South Viet­nam of 1975, what if both North and South Viet­nam de- veloped separately eco­nom­i­cally, with po­lit­i­cal an­tag­o­nism but not con­flict? A bit like West and East Ger­many or main­land China and Tai­wan?

By 1975, and even de­spite the on­go­ing con­flict, South Viet­nam was still ahead of the North. As long as the Saigon gov­ern­ment could de­velop its so­cio/eco­nomic base free from both Viet Cong in­sur­gency and the threat of a large- scale con­ven­tional North Viet­namese on­slaught, some­thing sim­i­lar to South Korea’s post-1953 eco­nomic re­vival could have hap­pened.

Though South Viet­nam’s econ- omy was weak in the af­ter­math of years of war, with a cease-fire which held, and sup­ported by a con­tin­u­ing flow of Amer­i­can eco­nomic as­sis­tance, Saigon stood at the thresh­old of pos­si­ble suc­cess. By the early 1980s, a new wave of for­eign in­vest­ment, open­ing mar­kets and en­ter­prise-driven eco­nomics were rad­i­cally trans­form­ing places like Korea and China and equally sweep­ing Southeast Asia from Sin­ga­pore to Thai­land.

South Viet­nam was thus well poised to at­tract some of this in­vest­ment and trade.

As I have writ­ten be­fore, “Hanoi’s ar­ro­gant tri­umphal­ism fol­low­ing re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1975, as­sured the So­cial­ist Repub­lic of Viet­nam that it would be by­passed by the ris­ing tide of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and waves of in­vest­ment which lapped on the shores from South Korea to Sin­ga­pore.”

In 1978, just three years af­ter the in­va­sion of the South, so­cial­ist Viet­nam’s per capita in­come stood at a paltry US$170 while South Korea’s was US$1,200, Malaysia was US$1,100, Tai­wan US$2,000 and Thai­land US$500.

Only many years later, and af­ter costly and avoid­able eco­nomic mis­takes, did Hanoi’s rigid Marx­ist gov­ern­ment adopt the Do Moi eco­nomic sys­tem which opened the coun­try to re­forms and en­cour­aged for­eign in­vest­ments.

To­day the Euro­pean Union, the USA, Ja­pan and Tai­wan are among Viet­nam’s largest in­vestors. Amer­i­can trade which stood at US$1 bil­lion in 2000, had surged to US$36 bil­lion in 2014, with the U.S. run­ning a US$25 bil­lion trade deficit last year.

Things have im­proved eco­nom­i­cally for the 90 mil­lion Viet­namese but at the ex­pense of mas­sive cor­rup­tion and en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal rigid­ity. Viet­nam’s per capita in­come now has reached US$2,230, South Korea stands at US$25,000, Malaysia US$12,000, Tai­wan US$22,000 and Thai­land US$6,260.

Eco­nomic changes fi­nally came for a re­united Viet­nam, but not be­fore the har­row­ing so­cial­ist mis­man­age­ment, the re-ed­u­ca­tion camps, the two mil­lion boat peo­ple refugees and the con­tin­u­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. This story could have ended so dif­fer­ently. John J. Met­zler is a United Na­tions cor­re­spon­dent cov­er­ing diplo­matic and de­fense is­sues. He is the au­thor of “Di­vided Dy­namism: The Diplo­macy of Sep­a­rated Na­tions: Ger­many, Korea, China” (2014). Con­tact jjm­col­umn@earth­link.net

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