Will Communist Vietnam Be Flying the F-16 Vipers?

The prospect appears quite possible as the Biden administration and Vietnamese aides parley about arming our one-time enemy.

AP/Lewis Joly
A U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet at Le Bourget, France, on June 19, 2023. AP/Lewis Joly

The Vietnamese air force flying American F-16’s?  That prospect appears quite possible as American and Vietnamese officials talk about sending the mainstay U.S. Air Force fighter plane to the one-time enemy the Americans were bombing before giving up on their “South” Vietnamese ally 50 years ago.

The F-16 ranks at the top of a list of military items the Americans may provide the Vietnamese as they negotiate what to do since Hanoi upgraded Washington to “comprehensive strategic partner” during President Biden’s visit earlier this month.

Washington, getting rid of excess F-16s while relying on the F-35 as the basic warplane of the Air Force, may agree to sending F-16s to Vietnam after donating  some to Ukraine, which sees them as vital to staving off the Russians.

That’s in accordance with what the State Department calls “a common vision for the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific region” — a sentence that obviously means the need for defense against Communist China.

The Americans have acknowledged talks with the Vietnamese while hiding exactly what was discussed behind a smokescreen of rhetoric.

“The United States and Vietnam have held 12 Political, Security, and Defense Dialogues to discuss bilateral security cooperation,” said the State Department, citing the transfer of two former U.S. coast guard cutters provided under the “excess defense articles program” as “the most significant major defense transfer” to Vietnam.

Stuck with more F-16’s than are needed while acquiring F-35s, Washington is considering transferring some of them to Vietnam under the same program. The Vietnamese have already acquired F-6 Texans, a single-propeller plane used for training pilots, as well as patrol boats and other critical items.

“We look forward to continuing to expand our security cooperation with Vietnam,” said the State Department, avoiding details but indicating the strategy in which Washington sees Vietnam as playing a critical role in holding China at bay at least in Southeast Asia.

That strategy, however, strikes some observers as a reminder of the long Vietnam War in which the Americans fought for ten years, capped off by heavy bombing of critical facilities at and around Hanoi in January 1973 before both sides signed the Paris peace. Washington withdrew the last American troops as Congress rejected a bill for providing billions more in military aid for the Saigon regime.

Some critics, remembering the failure of the Americans investment in Vietnam, in which 58,000 Americans were killed, see Washington again adopting a perilous policy in which stopping Chinese expansionism is the primary motive.

“Vietnam is playing a very delicate game between the United States and China right now with America hopes sky-high that it’ll join its burgeoning containment policy against Beijing,” a journalist during the Vietnam War, Carl Robinson, who had earlier worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Sun. 

“But it’s just another fantasy and oddly similar to the one that brought them into that long war,” said Mr. Robinson, visiting Vietnam from his base in Australia. “The U.S. naively now thinks the Vietnamese have forgotten and forgiven,” he said, a reference to the long war in which more than 1.1 million Vietnamese, from ‘South’ and ‘North Vietnam,’ military and civilian, lost their lives.” 

One factor discouraging Hanoi from moving too close to Washington is that Vietnam shares an 806-mile-long border with China, which historically has viewed Vietnam as almost a satellite nation. China was the primary source of the arms the “North” Vietnamese and their southern wing, the Viet Cong, used for fighting the Americans and their “South” Vietnamese ally. 

Nearly four years after defeating the American-supported Saigon government in 1975, however, the Vietnamese fought a brief but intense border war with China in early 1979. Vietnam has protested China’s claim to natural gas deposits in the South China Sea, all of which China claims as its territory. 

Vietnamese nationalism, however, precludes China from taking over the country.

“There is absolutely no way Vietnam is going to allow itself to become a Southeast Asian Ukraine right on China’s southern border,” said Mr. Robinson.    

Similarly, there’s “no way Vietnam is going to risk getting into a war,” he said. “Vietnam is extremely vulnerable both militarily and economically, and the U.S. is playing a very dangerous game with the Vietnamese people here.”

The New York Sun

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