Top “Anti-China” diplomat dies at 88

Tran Quang Co (middle, in glasses and black suit) in an international convention on the issue of Cambodia, Paris, 1991. Photo courtesy of the MOFA.

Tran Quang Co (middle, in glasses and black suit) at a convention in Paris in 1991. Photo courtesy of the MOFA.

A former top diplomat, Tran Quang Co, renowned for his revelations about Vietnam’s highly sensitive ties with China, died on June 25 at the age of 88.

He was one of the first senior officials to call for the normalisation of relations with the United States and for Vietnam’s entry into ASEAN.

He was always wary of China’s looming presence, warning that any country with such a giant neighbour would be bullied if it didn’t have friends.

His death comes at a time of renewed tension with Beijing and widespread suspicion that the government is appeasing its Communist neighbour and not adequately defending Vietnamese sovereignty.

In his 2001 memoir, “Retrospect and Deliberation”, Tran Quang Co revealed details of the backstage talks during Vietnam’s normalisation of relations with China.

Most controversially he shed some light on the highly sensitive Chengdu agreement of 1990 in which the Vietnamese Communist party was alleged to have compromised national sovereignty for the sake of reconciliation.

His memoirs alleged that China also took advantage of the negotiation process to cause a split between Vietnam and Cambodia.

The memoir could not find a mainstream publisher in Vietnam because of its potentially explosive content. Extracts, however, did leak out online.

The book could have expected big sales given the extent of public antipathy towards China and deeply held suspicions about the Communist party’s secretive ties with Beijing.

Always seen as in the “Pro-America” rather than the “Pro-China” camp in the party, Mr Co remained mostly silent in the years after his memoirs came out.

Earlier in his career he had been a member of North Vietnam’s delegation to the 1973 Paris Peace Convention. In 1986, he became a  member of the politburo, and played a significant role in the normalisation negotiations with Russia and the United States, as well as China.

In an unprecedented gesture, he turned down the post of foreign minister in 1991 in protest against Chinese interference.

It was believed that the previous minister, Nguyen Co Thach, had been dismissed because of pressure from Beijing.

Two years later, Mr Co retired from the Standing Committee of the Communist party.