Vietnam and the United States are growing closer in response to the power of China, an irony not surprising to anyone with an understanding of Machiavellian politics.
On a recent trip to Hanoi, I was told even that people on the street say the “US will support” Vietnam’s evolving territorial conflict with China. On a recent swing through Asia, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is quoted, correctly or not, as telling Vietnam, “We’ve got your back.” Military-to-military ties are growing stronger, starting with projects aimed at mine clearing around Haiphong. Panetta and Hillary Clinton have both visited Hanoi in recent months. Boeing is building a high-tech school at Dien Bien Phu, which is run by the son of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the general who defeated both France and the US over four decades of fighting.
This is the same United States that invaded, occupied, bombed, and killed or wounded over one million people in Vietnam through 1975, leaving behind a legacy of still exploding landmines and ordinance and ongoing birth defects caused by aerial herbicide spray missions of Agent Orange. It also is the same US whose citizens in the Sixties engaged in massive resistance to the war, an America whose new secretary of state, John Kerry, both fought in the war and later discarded his medals in disgust.
A Door to the South
Most Americans have no awareness that Vietnam fought Chinese troops twice after the war with the US, in Cambodia to remove the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge from power (1978) and on the Vietnam-China border (1979) after a Chinese invasion, resulting in 20 kilometers of Vietnamese territory being razed. In both of those wars, the US government took the diplomatic side of China while avoiding military involvement. Overall, the Vietnamese say, 14 wars have been fought with China during 10 centuries of occupation.
“They are expansionist,” one longtime Vietnamese authority said of China during a discussion last month. He drew the Chinese symbol for “middle kingdom,” meaning “center of the world” on a napkin, and then sketched the Eastern Sea where China and Vietnam already have clashed over the remote Spratly Islands in 1974 and 1988.
“Economically, it’s about oil,” he continued, “and strategically it’s about a door to the south.” To the north of China, he noted, lies Russia, to the east Japan, to the west India and mountain ranges, leaving Vietnam on the coast toward the south.
“China is the most important relationship to (the US),” he told me, but the US “wants to use Vietnam as a barrier.” China already is “present” in Cambodia as a main donor, and controls northern Laos. For Vietnam, “if Kampuchea and Laos are totally controlled by China, it will be very difficult.”
Sketching a map of the ocean, he said carefully that Vietnam must be prepared for another war against China over the Spratlys, regardless of the likelihood of the possibility. He indicated that at present the chance of violent conflict is “less than ten percent.” The indicated strategy that the Vietnamese employ would be to build fortifications amidst the sparse island chain, resist a Chinese assault, hope to bog down the invaders, then counter-attack China’s over-extended supply lines.
The Role of the U.S.
What would the US do in such a situation?
“They are afraid of China rising, and would like Vietnam to be stronger,” he said, while underscoring that the relationship with China is America’s strategic priority.
Vietnam is hesitant to enter a strategic alliance with the US because “it would be dangerous, provocative.” The implication being that having some relationship with the US might be a geo-political deterrent to Chinese expansion.
Today, China is far from asserting a dominant role over the disputed sea-lanes. Its first aircraft carrier is just now being completed, and the US Navy actually contributes to China’s sea-lane security. The US, in contrast, has a massive ocean base at Diego Garcia and multiple port agreements throughout the region. Nevertheless, the US security establishment shares the Vietnamese thesis about China’s inherent expansionism. To make their case, US strategists point to the unfolding of a Chinese maritime strategy, first announced in 1982 by Adm. Liu Huaquing, to become a global sea power on a par with the US by 2050. (Natan, Andrew and Andrew Scobell, The Washington Quarterly, “China’s Over-stretched Military,” Fall 2012)
The growing danger, as with the first Cold War, is that pre-emptive moves on behalf of the United States inevitably will spur expansionist sentiments and steps by the Chinese in an escalating spiral.
If indeed the American-Vietnamese relationship blossoms, then it may require the US to be more forthcoming in its token policies to aid in Vietnam’s reconstruction, as Sec. Kerry well knows.
In the meantime, however, Vietnam’s national security concerns will divert resources away from civilian development needs, and tensions with China will adversely affect Vietnam’s democratization process. Just last month, for example, repression intensified with the convictions of 14 Vietnamese “dissidents” accused of subverting the social order by, among other issues, criticizing Chinese influence on their own government. According to a murky New York Times report, “Protests have grown in recent years over China’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea and over a major bauxite plant run by China in Vietnam’s central highlands.”
Whatever the case may be, it is well to remember that the US government falsely asserted for decades that the Vietnamese communists were a “domino” played by China in the Cold War, when the truth was the opposite: Vietnamese nationalism was an obstacle to both American and Chinese strategic ambitions. Is it possible that the US will take the side of the Vietnam in this new Cold War, or use and discard them in another high-stakes great-power game?