Jun 01 2014

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Vietnam is Vital to Pacific Pivot

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No permanent enemies, just permanent interests...
No permanent enemies, just permanent interests…


A few months after arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1994, I wrote a short story.

The plot focused on a US soldier in Vietnam, drinking in a local bar during the Tet holiday, lamenting the military stalemate in the field and the burgeoning protest movement back home. The reflections are broken by a series of explosions that forces the protagonist into the street and a quick return back to his unit.

Pretty unremarkable, yes?

The twist in the story was that the GI wasn’t in 1968 Saigon, but in Hanoi, in the early 21st century. The enemy wasn’t the Viet Cong, but China. In this projection of the future, the US and Vietnam were allies, fighting against Chinese expansionism.

I let a few friends read it. All appreciated the twist and the irony it entailed – former bitter enemies brought together as partners in another Asian ground war. But part of the allure was also how fantastical such a prospect appeared.

In 1994, the Vietnam War – and the ignoble American exit from Saigon – was not even two decades old. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were just beginning to thaw (a proper embassy and Ambassador would not come until 1996) and emotions were raw on both sides of the Pacific over a host of legacy issues, be they POW-MIAs, Agent Orange defoliation or the unfulfilled terms of the Paris Peace Treaty that had ended US military participation in 1973. Truly close relations seemed insurmountable at best.

But 1994 determined nothing permanently. It was only a way-station for progress. The world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

Since 1994, Vietnam’s economic growth has been remarkable. With a GDP of barely $19 billion in ’94, the Vietnamese economy today produces $141 billion in goods and services. Put in context, Vietnam produces every 60 days what it took an entire year to produce in 1994. GDP per capita, has grown to nearly $2,000 per person from less than $400 in 1994, an enormous increase in wealth in such a short period of time.

Today, there is a bilateral trade agreement in place with the US (2001), normalizing trade and investment rules, and Vietnam entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, fully integrating into the global economy. US trade with Vietnam, $223 million in 1994, had grown to $30 billion by 2013.

Relations between the US and Vietnam have also changed dramatically, after a long pause post-1975.  The first visit by a Vietnamese head of State to Washington occurred in 2013. President Clinton was the first US president to visit Hanoi in November 2000.  George W. Bush also visited Vietnam in 2006 to attend APEC meetings.

The two nations have also gradually explored greater cooperation outside traditional economic issues to include security cooperation. Leon Panetta was the first US Secretary of Defense to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the fall of Saigon in 1975. US Navy ships have made port calls in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) and Da Nang, once one of the largest US naval bases in the world during the Vietnam War.

Which is not to say that relations between the two countries are tension free. Human rights have been a prominent agenda topic for US diplomats in Hanoi, and influential members of Congress have tied expanded ties with Vietnam to the American human rights agenda, hobbling a more robust strategic dialogue. Vietnam, whole and free as a united country for only 39 years – after centuries of war, occupation, partition and colonization – remains wary of anything more than incremental changes in policy with a former foe.

But China is changing all that.

I remember two meetings with government officials in Vietnam from 1994. The first was a reception attended by a ranking official from the Ministry of Trade. My company’s marketing materials were in a folder with a large map of Vietnam on the cover, calling the body of water off Vietnam’s coast by its internationally recognized name – the South China Sea. The official pointed out that the Vietnamese referred to the body of water as the Eastern Sea; improbably since anything with China’s name in it would eventually be claimed by China. No need to advertise the point.

Later that year, in meetings in Da Nang, I spoke with a Vietnamese official about a resort hotel project that was tentatively named, “China Beach.” The name was designed to be evocative in the US market for the R&R facility used by US soldiers during the Vietnam War.  The official worried that China would claim the facility as its own because of the name.

In both instances, I was incredulous. What nation could make such preposterous claims? But 20 years later, those concerns are being borne out in real life.

After exponential economic growth in the last 35 years, China has become the second largest economy in the world, fielding an increasing sophisticated and capable military. Long the “Sick Man” of Asia, beset by internal feuds, civil war, invasion and occupation, and hobbled by radical economic plans that made the country poorer, China has emerged as a powerful country with a long list of well-remembered, historical grievances.

After the communist victory in mainland China in 1949, it was Taiwan that was the focus of Chinese territorial revanchism. Indeed, President Eisenhower prepared to go to war with China in the 1950s over Quemoy and Matsu, islands between Taiwan and China with disputed sovereignty.

Today, China is on the march on a much broader field.

Beijing has picked a fight with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, in the Okinawa chain, which is part of Japan. The Chinese have unilaterally created an air defense identification zone over the islands, requiring any non-Chinese aircraft to file flight plans and provide notification before entering the disputed area, a clear challenge to Japanese sovereignty.

Further south, the Chinese have managed to serially offend the governments of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam with their aggressive claims to island chains (Spratly and Paracel Islands) and the rich mineral and oil deposits in the South China Sea.  China’s placement of an oil rig well within waters claimed by the Vietnam is only the latest – and most serious – Chinese provocation.

Vietnam clearly has a China problem.

In 1979, in an attempt to “punish” Vietnam for ousting the Chinese backed, genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, China invaded Vietnam. The operation was intentionally limited, lasting only a month. Both sides claimed victory, but in its aftermath, it was clear that China’s military preparation and organization was inadequate to the fight, creating disorder and unnecessary casualties. The Chinese set out to fix the shortcomings, and, over 30 years later, have transformed their military forces with state of the art weapons. Another clash of forces will not be on the same terms.

Vietnam’s own military modernization has not kept pace, nor, given the disparity in sheer size, could Vietnam afford to purchase and deploy the array of modern planes, ships and support/logistical equipment that is now operational in the Chinese military.  This relative weakness compounds the strategic problems Vietnam confronts in the face of aggressive Chinese actions.

As the Chinese have staked out a far more provocative geo-political posture, Vietnam has pragmatically relied on regional and multilateral forums (ASEAN) to press its case for peaceful settlements of dispute under international law. Indeed, a by-product of Chinese adventurism has been to unite, as perhaps never before, the nations of ASEAN who have, until now, had their own parochial territorial and trade concerns that prevented a more cohesive voice.

But unless China relents – and there is no sign that the Chinese leadership is prepared to do so – multilateral forums will get Vietnam only so far. At some point, Vietnam will need to counter-balance Chinese power. Currently, only the United States has the power and capability to do that.  The sooner the Vietnamese leadership recognizes this, the sooner the two countries can begin a more thoughtful and comprehensive security relationship.

If Vietnam needs America, does America need Vietnam?


The rise of a powerful China, pre-occupied by correcting legacy territorial disputes and fulfilling its version of “manifest destiny” by asserting primacy in China’s “near abroad,” is a direct threat to US interests in the Pacific. It threatens outright conflict with US allies, Japan and South Korea, and democratic friends such as Taiwan and the Philippines. Moreover, Chinese efforts to change the balance of power by asserting primacy in bodies of water hundreds of miles from its shores represents a global economic threat, as 2/3rds of all global trade traverses the South China Sea. Vietnam, whose entire coastline abuts the South China Sea is integral to any US plan to protect American interests in the western Pacific.

In this emerging situation, both America and Vietnam must take a page from Lord Palmerston, a 19th century British prime minister, who pragmatically said that England had no permanent allies, only permanent interests. The US and Vietnam, through different geographical, cultural and political lenses, both have a vital interest in combatting Chinese adventurism.

Solid first steps are in place, with military to military exchanges and joint search and rescue operations, which allow US and Vietnamese forces to gain experience working together.  This should be expanded.

Port visits have been successful and should be expanded so that US ships can replenish at Vietnamese ports. Cooperation should also provide use of Vietnamese air fields – on an emergency, contingency basis only – for damaged or malfunctioning US aircraft.

More controversially, on the American side, the US needs to amend regulations that bar the sale of military equipment and services to Vietnam. Vietnamese forces currently to rely on Russian equipment for their principle, big ticket aircraft and ships, and such a US move would not have an immediate impact.  However, in the longer-term, amending US regulations would allow the Vietnamese to augment existing gaps in their security posture, including aerial surveillance, communications and rapid response. Stipulations could continue to cover the equipment for crowd control and related items that are of concern to American human rights activists.

The US should also consider sharing intelligence with the Vietnamese on issues of mutual concern.

No sane person would want a war in the Pacific, which would be damaging to the participants and catastrophic to the global economy. Before all else, firm, principled, pragmatic diplomacy must be the first priority to resolve the territorial disputes from Japanese home islands to Indonesia.

However, the key to success lies not with the nations collectively seeking common ground through the use of international law to resolve disputes and equitably share the bounty from undersea natural resources.

It lies in Beijing.

China is a great nation with a great people, retaking its proper place in the rank of the world’s most influential countries. But if the current course of territorial revanchism backed up by military threats is not a negotiating posture, but rather a policy, the US and its allies must be prepared to defend their interests.

Today, America’s strategic interests intersect with those of Vietnam. We should recognize it as such and begin to prepare.

One final reflection.

In 1996, I had an interesting conversation with our youngest Vietnamese employee. Born in 1976, he had missed the war and most of the economic privation that hobbled the Vietnamese until economic reforms were introduced in the late ’80s. He was very smart, educated and every inch a Vietnamese patriot, proud of his country, its history and its accomplishments. We talked about the Chinese border war of ’79, and he related stories, no doubt learned in school, of how the Vietnamese army pushed back the Chinese invader, as the Vietnamese had done throughout their history.

There was a certain pride and bravado with him at the end of the story, as I would assume an American might feel talking about Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge. After a pause, I looked at him intently.

You realize they are going to come back, right?” I said. “It might be ten years or 100 years, but the next time, and there will be a next time, the Chinese will be back and they will have no intention on losing.”

There was no answer.

The question hung in the air, with all the uncertainty and consequences that go along with it. History since has only made the obvservation more relevant.


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