When Ted Osius came to Vietnam as a U.S. diplomat in the 1990s, he was forbidden from discussing Agent Orange, the defoliant that America doused on its enemy in the Vietnam War.
Two decades later, U.S. policy has done an about-face. Osius, now the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, oversees joint efforts to expunge dioxin from Vietnamese soil and care for locals who suffered from exposure to the chemical.
“We turned what was a place of great contention into an area where we are collaborating a great deal with Vietnam,” Osius said Thursday at a conference marking 20 years of bilateral relations. “And we’re having an honest discussion about our past. And my belief is the only way to get past the past is if you’re honest about it.”
As Washington takes responsibility for its history, the Agent Orange turnaround demonstrates the thorough metamorphosis Vietnam-U.S. ties have undergone. With war in the rear-view mirror, the two countries have ramped up trade and educational exchanges, voiced similar concerns about China’s ascent in the region, and burned through the kilometers for high-level state visits.
On commerce, Hanoi and Washington were the first to complete bilateral talks for the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. The TPP would bolster the U.S.-Vietnam friendship, but officials on both sides try to temper the notion that this friendship is meant to counterbalance China. At the conference, former Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien dismissed what he called “rumors” that territorial conflicts are pushing Vietnam into U.S. arms.
“It’s not because we take advantage of this relationship to counterweight the other side,” Nien said. “That is not our policy.”
The countries are warming up to each other for their overall benefit, he said. Nien lit incense last year when U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a Vietnamese communist party secretary, a first for the White House. “My heart was touched,” Nien said.