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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 7, 2012

Cold counter to warming US-Vietnam ties
By Adam Boutzan

In late May, an analysis of supposed United States intentions toward Vietnam was posted on a popular Vietnamese blog site. The document cited what was purported to be a Vietnamese military intelligence analyst's report on remarks made by US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Claire Pierangelo and three younger American officials named only as Gary, Greg and Chuck.

The blog site, Dan Lam Bao (People Make the News), says the report is one of many leaked to it by an anonymous source. Some foreign experts who have reviewed the document in question believe that it's a fabrication. Perhaps so, but probably not; a fake would have likely been more expertly done.

The Vietnamese intelligence report's author cobbles together comments attributed by "sources" to the aforesaid Americans that, he says, provide insight into a supposed US strategy of undermining Vietnamís communist regime. If so, the analysis is


out of step with mainstream views of a budding bilateral relationship.

Vietnam's rapprochement with the US began in the early 1990s and has developed particular strength in recent years. From the beginning, however, Hanoi's decision to repair relations with its former foe was controversial within the Communist Party elite.

Party "liberals" argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Vietnam with no recourse but to seek to develop its prostrate economy on Western models. "Conservatives" stressed that if the nation shifted to a free-market orientation, as implemented by the doi moi policy, it would be impossible to prevent political and social contamination.

In the 20 years that followed, Vietnam's economy boomed and relations with the West - including the US - have extended to include vigorous educational exchanges, military cooperation driven by shared wariness of an increasingly assertive China, and a virtually unhindered flood of Western, Japanese and Korean pop culture. It now seems that the predictions of both party factions were correct.

While liberals now celebrate what some refer to as a "strategic relationship" with the US, party conservatives lament a progressive weakening of public morality and the party's authority. From the perspective of party liberals, the comments attributed to the Americans in the leaked document are hardly outrageous. From the perspective of conservatives, however, their tone, alternately celebratory and disparaging, is likely viewed as offensive.

DCM Pierangelo is quoted as saying the biggest problem with the Vietnamese economy is the leadership's short-term focus and its incestuous relationship with inefficient state enterprises. "Economic restructuring ... is an empty phrase. The government knows its problems, but private and parochial considerations blur their vision and slow the pace of change."

"Corruption has become a serious disease," the American DCM allegedly adds, pointedly implicating Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and unnamed ministers, "to the point that the people attribute all bad things to 'Communism'." She is said to conclude that the regime's failures put it on a collision path with the aspirations of an Americanized younger generation.

The economic assessment is consistent with the opinions of experts from international development banks and has long been standard critical fare for op-eds in Western newspapers. It's what Pierangelo - trained as an economic specialist - might say if giving a private briefing to a group of visiting American businessmen.

In the leaked report, however, she also sounds strangely smug: "The US was worried about the solidity of the China-Vietnam relationship, but [because of the penetration of American culture] now Vietnam has escaped the influence of Chinese culture."

"Vietnam's problems are of its own making. ... Before, we thought we'd have to spend a lot of money to accomplish our objectives, but that's no longer necessary ... We'll press Vietnam's government on human rights issues in order to achieve our [other] strategic objectives."

Lastly, Pierangelo allegedly sums up: "With all that's going on in Vietnam right now, the face of the country will change greatly in the next twenty years ... It's very possible that the Communist regime will not endure."

Naive assessments
Interspersed with the diplomatic bomblets attributed to Pierangelo, Gary (identified as a State Department political officer), Greg (said to be a US Army major) and Chuck (a Marine captain) provide comparative comic relief. These three are apparently recent graduates of the Washington DC-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which is identified by the analyst as an "incubator for CIA agents".

The three men seem to have been sent to Hanoi on brief "familiarization" assignments. Attributed to them is the sort of commentary one might expect from newbies: (1) people they've met in cafes and beer halls are fed up with petty corruption and criticize the government for not standing up to Beijing on South China Sea territorial claims; (2) Vietnamese really hate China, and not just because it plays dirty on the territorial issue; and (3) the Vietnamese are fast becoming Americanized and are real friendly to Americans.

Greg, the supposed State Department official, disclosed, "that if American policy makers understood the situation in Vietnam better, as we do, then surely Americans would regard Vietnam very differently. Americans don't know much about Vietnam because they haven't had opportunities to come here and meet the people. Our job [ie, his, Gary's and Chuck's] is to help Americans understand Vietnam better. Vietnam now is very close to us."

To Colonel Nguyen Tan Tien, under whose signature the supposed report was forwarded to the head of military intelligence, the implications of these remarks are clearly sinister: the Americans believe that their "peaceful evolution" policy is succeeding so well that all they have to do is wait for the regime to collapse.

"What's especially significant," he says, "is that [they think] the weaknesses and shortcomings of our economy and society, as well as the emergence of pro-American, anti-Chinese thinking, is causing the people to lose confidence in the Party and the regime."

The reports says: "That establishes a foundation for Vietnam's 'self-transformation', and all it will take to collapse the regime is a nudge by the Americans at the appropriate time. In the short run, the US (particularly the embassy in Hanoi) is finding ways to set up a social network in Vietnam, enticing and converting the younger generation, vigorously propagandizing, causing contention between China and Vietnam ... aiming at transforming [and/or] overthrowing Vietnam's regime within the next 20 years."

If a novice analyst were making these deductions, diplomatic observers would conclude that he was out of his depth. Colonel Tien, however, is presumably a veteran. The self-serving and overwrought conclusions he extracts from the remarks attributed to DCM Pierangelo and the three other Americans seem calculated to reinforce the suspicions of conservatives among the ruling elite, to wit, that the perfidious Americans are bent on poisoning Vietnam's relations with China and replicating an Eastern European-type "peaceful evolution" in Vietnam.

Of course, the report may not be genuine after all: there are some who might have both motive and capability to manufacture and disseminate such disinformation. That could include members of the Viet Tan party, an underground/exile group of dissidents which the Hanoi regime insists are criminal terrorists.

Since it published the report described above, the Dan Lam Bao blog has, up to June 3, published three other texts that it claims to have received from the same anonymous source. Two are reports of Vietnamese diplomatic contacts with Chinese counterparts in Beijing, and the third is a memorandum summarizing preparations by the American Chamber of Commerce for a meeting in February with visiting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

The ordinariness of the three other reports suggests that the leaked documents are genuine, not disinformation. Evidently Dan Lam Bao plans to publish about one document per day. A researcher who regularly monitors Vietnam's blogosphere says that the disclosures haven't attracted particular attention in the online community of political pundits.

Put another way, it seems that the indiscretions attributed to DCM Pierangelo and the other Americans are of special interest only to those who suspect that America's real intention in Vietnam is to bring down its government.

Adam Boutzan, a pseudonym, is an independent writer.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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