The recent Hanoi summit attended by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thrust Vietnam into the global spotlight; a rare moment of publicity in the modern era for a country which dominated the world’s attention through the unfolding horrors of war in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet the hosts were left disappointed when the summit collapsed, after failed talks on de-nuclearization prompted the US delegation to depart early for Washington. Five decades earlier the US had been in no rush to leave despite a similar sense of impending mission failure, instead sending thousands more troops and sticking around to bomb Vietnam for eight years from 1965-1973. While the summit leaves no lasting impression, the legacy of unexploded bombs and toxic contamination from the war remains.
Just days after dialogue faltered in Hanoi, a huge 350kg US-made war-era bomb was unearthed 400km further south in the central province of Quang Binh, as a family dug foundations for their new house. The live air-dropped bomb, discovered close to the busy national highway 1A, was one of the largest found in recent years. The area was evacuated and the bomb later safely defused by demining experts. While deaths or injuries were avoided, the find is a stark reminder of the lingering risk from US bombs.
The effects of Agent Orange also persist in central areas of Vietnam, where soil and waterways remain contaminated after toxic defoliants were sprayed by the US to deny forest cover to Viet Cong troops.
With Vietnam back out of the media glare after the Hanoi summit, and with global attention fixed on new conflict hot-spots in the Middle East, there is concern over the future will of foreign governments and international donors to clear unexploded ordnance from former battle zones in Indochina. Given Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ foreign policy and desire to cut funding overseas, there are also doubts over whether the US commitment to help Vietnam heal from the war is set for the long-term.
The lasting impact of US bombing raids on Vietnam
In an eight-year aerial campaign between 1965-1973, US warplanes dropped around 800,000 tonnes of munitions, striking at least 55 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities in an attempt to turn the tide of the war between the US-backed south and the communist-controlled North. A significant proportion of bombs failed to detonate on impact, and remain buried just beneath the surface in the countryside.
Since hostilities ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, accidents involving unexploded ordnance (UXO) have claimed more than 105,000 victims across the country, killing at least 38,900 and leaving 66,000 injured. Meanwhile 7% of Vietnamese citizens, or 6.2 million people, have a disability, while 13% live in households with at least one disabled occupant. UXO explosions are a major contributory factor to Vietnam’s high disability rate, in many cases leaving victims with crippling conditions such as lost limbs and blindness. Agent Orange has also been blamed for an unusually high rate of severe birth defects.
Farmers and scrap metal collectors most often fall victim to UXO blasts after coming into contact with ordnance in rural areas. Children are also disproportionately affected, with thousands having suffered injuries after mistaking spherical-shaped cluster bomblets for toys. Since the mid-1990s, a number of organizations have run risk education classes to help educate local communities of the hidden danger.
Added to the immediate physical effects on those caught up in accidents, UXO contamination has had a wider socio-economic impact. Tens-of-thousands of victims require long-term physical rehabilitation and psychological support, placing a strain on Vietnam’s healthcare system. In micro-economic terms UXO can have a devastating effect, removing the earning-capacity of the main breadwinner in families and placing a double burden on relatives in the form of providing care and making-up for lost income. The prevailing threat of UXO also restricts agriculture and development in rural areas near the former demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, where fighting was most intense. Quang Tri province, along the old dividing line, is worst-hit: up to 84% of land here is contaminated, compared to 15% nationwide.
Local and international demining efforts since the 1990s
For more than 20 years since the mid-1990s, a collection of experienced international NGOs has been working to rid Vietnam of UXO alongside local state-run agencies and the Vietnamese armed forces. In recent years, Danish Demining Group (DDG), Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have been among those operating in central areas to clear land and provide risk education.
The Vietnamese government has also been working to improve national-level infrastructure in recent years to better co-ordinate and oversee the demining effort. In 2013, a military-run Vietnam National Mine Action Centre (VNMAC) was established, while last year Hanoi formed Steering Committee 701 on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences, to propose new solutions and mobilize civil society actors both at home and abroad to confront war legacy issues.
The government is hoping to make greater inroads into combatting the harmful legacy of UXO in the coming years, and aims to clear 800,000 hectares of bomb-contaminated land by 2025. However, this only represents a small percentage of the affected area, which totals at least 6.1 million hectares. The true figure may turn out to be even higher once a full survey has been completed. It is estimated that the removal of all UXO items in Vietnam will take up to a century and cost an eye-watering US$10bn.
Speaking at a global mine awareness conference last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said UXO was still holding the country back four decades after the guns fell silent. ‘‘Although the war has been over, the severe consequences of landmines, UXO and toxic chemicals still exist, affecting human health and living environments. Many people have lost their lives or suffered the loss of a part of their body, or lost their loved ones’’. Phuc added the presence of UXO still limits socio-economic progress.
Concerns over future US and global demining support
In the past year, new funding has been announced from the UK, Norway and South Korea to continue demining activities in the worst-affected provinces. In mid-2018, South Korea committed US$20m for survey and clearance in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh, while a deal was signed with the NPA to fund work in Quang Tri until 2022. Late last year, funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was announced to support the work of MAG in Quang Tri. Yet the US remains the main source of external funding, providing over 90% of total foreign assistance for UXO projects in Vietnam in 2017.
Between 1993-2017, the US has invested at least US$119.3m for UXO-related programmes in Vietnam. For two decades, the network of in-country demining operators has relied primarily on US finance to expand their vital work. There are now concerns that under the more isolationist and inward-looking administration of President Trump – intent on cost-cutting on projects abroad which are not deemed in the national interest – sustained US help for the UXO clean-up in Vietnam appears more uncertain. And with the Vietnam War fading into distant memory, other foreign funding sources are also fragile.
Will war legacy issues remain central in US-Vietnam ties?
Does the US have a moral obligation to help Vietnam recover from a conflict which is now condemned widely in the west and increasingly viewed as an aggressive act of Cold War-era misadventure? Former president Obama appeared to hold that view, stating his belief on a 2016 visit to Laos that the US had a duty to help Vietnam’s neighbour ‘heal’ from the pain caused by past US actions in the region. It is unclear whether President Trump, and future US presidents, will share such sentiment. There are positive signs: the US recently completed an operation to remove Agent Orange toxins from land near Da Nang airport, and is due to start decontaminating a larger site at Bien Hoa air base later this year.
In the four decades since the war ended, geopolitical realities have shifted and the rapid rise of China has pushed Vietnam and the US closer together faster than anticipated. Since restoring diplomatic ties in 1995, relations between the two former enemies have blossomed, most ironically in the field of defence. The Hanoi-Washington security relationship has been evidenced since Trump came to power by a rising frequency of high-level visits. Trump has visited twice, while State Secretary Mike Pompeo and former Defence Secretary James Mattis have also made trips to take part in high-level exchanges.
The US has focused mainly on improving Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities in the context of the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is a major claimant state and is opposed to China’s expansive claim. Last year, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang port for four days, marking the first visit by a US carrier since the war. The US has also transferred a refurbished US Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese navy, funded the acquisition of 24 45-ft patrol boats – 12 of which have already been delivered – and granted Vietnam US$26.25m to boost its maritime security capacity during 2017-2018. Once an enemy, Vietnam is now one of the US’ most dependable security partners in Southeast Asia.
In this context, a long-term US commitment to fund UXO clearance in the coming decades would not only be in the interests of Vietnam’s prosperity and continued economic development, cementing its recovery from the war. It would also be in the US’ national interest, helping to cement its growing ties with Hanoi as it aims to refocus on the Indo-Pacific, while signalling its recognition of the harm caused in Vietnam. Only when the last bomb is cleared, can the shared horrors of the war be fully lain to rest.
A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.