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Last Updated: Monday, 31 December 2007, 18:05 GMT
Vietnam looks forward to UN role
By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese Service

This new year will see Vietnam in the hot-seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung
The Vietnamese PM played an active role in UN talks with Burma

The two-year membership is being seen as a test of Hanoi's readiness to take on bigger international roles.

The communist state has already moved a long way towards integrating with the rest of the world.

But the new UN role could be challenging for a country which was, until recently, totally isolated from the international scene.

The UN vote last October, when Vietnam and four other countries were selected as temporary members of the Security Council, was greeted with much fanfare and expectation in the country.

The domestic media has run numerous articles and interviews with the country's top leaders, who promised Hanoi would do its utmost to "serve the interests of the international community, both globally and regionally".

'Honour and prestige'

The move has triggered excitement - even elation - among local people, who see it as a sign that Vietnam is now on a more equal footing with its bigger neighbours.

"It is a great honour and prestige for Vietnam, to be given such responsibility," said Thieu Thi Tao, a veteran of the Vietnam War from Ho Chi Minh City.

"During the war, we could never dream of this," she added.

The path to the UN Security Council started some 10 years ago.

Based on our own experience, we definitely can help protect world peace
Nguyen Tri Tinh, War veteran

Long a target of Western sanctions, Hanoi kept a low profile for decades.

But vigorous economic growth has increased the confidence of Vietnam's Communist Party leadership.

In 2006, the then-foreign minister Nguyen Dy Nien told journalists how he had quietly asked the then-German foreign minister Joschka Fischer at a conference to support Vietnam's bid.

"He tapped on my shoulders and said: 'Of course I will. But why would you want to join the council? It's all hard work - hundreds of meetings a year!'", Mr Nien said with a chuckle.

More than 200 meetings, to be precise.

But the large number of meetings will be a small task compared to the tricky diplomatic balancing act that Vietnam will have to maintain.

"One of the biggest challenges will be the direct pressure from major countries as well as the impact from other countries in the process of casting votes, when it comes to issues of regional security," said Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam's first deputy minister of foreign affairs.

Public protests

As a newcomer, the toughest test for Vietnam will be how to deal with the five permanent members of the council, especially neighbouring China.

The relationship between the two countries, which has seen many ups and downs, experienced a dip in recent weeks when Beijing was alarmed by recent anti-China demonstrations inside Vietnam.

Hundreds of Vietnamese youths staged public protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in response to an alleged decision by the Chinese government to establish a new administrative city with control over three archipelagos in the South China Sea, two of which are also claimed by Vietnam.

A Vietnamese protestor demonstrates against a Chinese move to exert control over two disputed archipelagos
China's actions in the South China Sea sparked protests in Vietnam

Demonstrations on this scale are extremely rare in Vietnam, and the protests were seen as having been "approved" by the Vietnamese government.

Hanoi promptly dismissed this allegation, but the territorial dispute remains a thorny issue in Sino-Vietnamese relations.

Experts say Vietnam needs to resolve the awkward situation, and needs to do it quickly in order to be able to work alongside China in the Security Council.

Negotiating role

Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh acknowledged that Vietnam was lacking in experience on the eve of its Security Council membership.

But Hanoi is learning fast.

In recent years, it has started contributing more and more to international efforts aimed at pacifying some of the region's long-standing trouble-spots, such as Burma and North Korea.

Vietnam has been playing an active role in negotiating with the military regime in Burma, while opposing international sanctions against the junta.

Seen as a friend and a traditional ally, Hanoi is also in a good position to talk to North Korea, and has hosted a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings with North Korea on its controversial nuclear programme.

The Vietnamese government has also expressed a desire to contribute to international peacekeeping forces in the future, although the participation would only be of a logistical nature and not combative.

Hanoi is obviously taking great care to make sure it is not seen as an aggressor in the region.

"We are a peace-loving nation," said another war veteran, Nguyen Tri Tinh, in Hanoi.

"Based on our own experience, we definitely can help protect world peace."

It is still too early to predict whether Vietnam's two years at the Security Council will be a success.

But domestically, the move is already proving very popular.

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