Seminar: France, Vietnam, and South East Asia since the Vietnam War


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Brown Bag Seminar by Dr. Pierre Journoud

When: Jul 16 2013 - 12:00pm until Jul 16 2013 - 1:00pm
Where: East-West Center Honolulu, JAB 3012

Dr. Pierre Journoud (Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School, and Center for the History of Contemporary Asia, Paris)

As is well known, French rule over its Indochinese colonies ended in the flames of Dien Bien Phu, on the 7th of May 1954, followed by the signature of the Geneva Accords.  But the decolonization process cannot be reduced to a brutal breaking.  How did the former colonial power adapt itself within this very turbulent and changing Southeast Asian area during the Decolonization and the Cold War, and then after the Soviet collapse? To formulate some answers, this presentation will underline two main periods: 1963 to 1969; 1969 to today.

The first, from 1963 to 1969, was dominated by the French attempts to prevent the beginning – and then accelerate the end – of the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  It took almost a decade after Dien Bien Phu, before France publicly dissociated itself from the US military engagement. After the settlement of the Algerian war in 1962, which marked the end of the French decolonization process, de Gaulle shaped a new strategy in order to “des-americanize” the conflict and strengthen French interests in the entire area, playing at local, regional, and international levels.  Between 1965 and 1968, Vietnam was central to de Gaulle’s geopolitical calculations.  But the huge impact of his speeches on the war – especially the famous Phnom Penh speech in 1966 – overshadowed his sincere efforts, both public and private, to accelerate the end of the war.  Indeed, besides the official diplomacy of the Fifth Republic, working to initiate a political dialogue with all the parties involved in the war, even with Communist China, President de Gaulle did not hesitate to resort to secret diplomacy, for example his very discreet, ultimately successful efforts to locate the peace conference in Paris, initiated several months before its official opening in May 1968.  De Gaulle’s more favorable stance vis-à-vis the Vietnamese Communists also allowed unofficial French intermediaries to play a constructive role in the long peace process between American and Vietnamese.  De Gaulle’s policy, however, was excessively focused on the intensely polarizing Vietnam conflict, and did not attach enough importance to the members of the new Association of Southeast Asian nations.

What was the legacy of de Gaulle’s policy and what were the new directions that his successors have tried to develop since 1969? The French SEA policy remained powerfully influenced by a strong Sino-Indochinese tropism. Vietnam was and still is an important Asian partner for France, although commercial relations are weak.  The relationship never ceased, even during the dark 1980’s, while Vietnam was ostracized by the USA, and by the international community because of its occupation of Cambodia.  The French even took advantage from the strategic vacuum that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the normalization between Vietnam and China and the return of the Americans – a policy supported by President François Mitterrand (1981-1995). Moreover, new horizons were eventually explored, sometimes with success.  The first is the multilateralization of the French policy in SEA: relations between France, the European community and ASEAN have advanced step by step in positive directions; a Euro-Asian forum was created in 1996, thanks to a Franco-Singaporean proposal which also aimed at counterbalancing the APEC forum.  On a bilateral level, new partnerships with countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were initiated, stimulated by the personal friendships that President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) developed with some of the leaders of these countries. Arms sales and defense cooperation played a major role in these rapprochements.  Today, SEA is viewed by François Hollande’s cabinet to be just as important as the big Asian countries like China, Japan and India. In their more or less active efforts to counterbalance China, ASEAN members do not want to depend only on the USA. They would welcome a more active role of the European Union, but this story has not been written yet.

Primary Contact Info:
Name: Lillian Shimoda
Phone: 944-7557
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