AUSTIN, TEX. - Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has denied signing any agreement with the Chinese government decades ago to pave the way for Beijing to occupy a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea.
Kissinger said this week at the Vietnam War Summit in Austin, Texas, that the Paracel Islands — a point of friction between Hanoi and Beijing — was not as important as other issues at that time.
“The American position with respect to the islands has been that we do not take a position of sovereignty of these islands," the former presidential advisor added. "In 1974, in the midst of Watergate and the war in the Middle East, I can assure you that the Paracel Islands were not foremost on our mind. But there is no agreement that was ever signed in which we gave China a right to occupy the Paracel Islands, nor have the Chinese ever claimed that.”
Nationalist sentiments over China are running high in Vietnam as its giant neighbor consolidates claims over disputed waters with a military build-up and mass artificial island-building projects.
Some Vietnamese, especially those who fought for former U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces, have held a grudge against the United States for not intervening in the 1974 naval battle with China that left dozens of Vietnamese dead and ultimately forced their withdrawal from the Paracels.
Kissinger was then the top diplomat in the Nixon administration, which was seeking rapprochement with China. In an unrestricted — but at times tense — interaction with audience members in Austin, Kissinger said he sympathized with the suffering of the South Vietnamese, calling the evacuation after the fall of Saigon “one of the saddest moments” of his life.
The controversial war that ended 41 years ago was once again revisited by high-profile figures in the current and former U.S. administration.
Tom Johnson, former executive assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, said he was “pleased” and “grateful” over progress being made in the relations between Hanoi and Washington.
He said the two sides get closer as they want to “work on economic development,” while some point to China’s assertiveness over the South China Sea.
“There is a concern, I know, about China’s military build-up. There is a concern about newly-created islands, but I do think that the leaders on both sides see the importance of trade,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry, former soldier-turned-Vietnam War protestor, said at the same summit on Wednesday that Washington and Hanoi have come a long way since the two countries normalized their relations.
“Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors annually to Vietnam. Today, there are nearly half a million," he said. "Twenty years ago, bilateral trade in goods with Vietnam was only $451 million. Today, it is more than $45 billion a year.”
Kerry said the two sides are now cooperating on security issues, especially with respect to the South China Sea, an area he said might have not been foreseen two decades ago.
The top U.S. diplomat said Hanoi and Washington “obviously continue to have differences,” but “we talk about them frankly and regularly and often productively.”
Dialogue over the history of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region coincided with the introduction of bipartisan legislation on Wednesday that calls for the White House to increase U.S. naval patrols in the disputed, resource-rich maritime territory.
Trung Nguyen is a correspondent with VOA's Vietnamese Service.