Could Vietnam Be America’s New Counterweight to China?

Could Vietnam Be America’s New Counterweight to China?

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When Hillary Clinton told the ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi this past July that it was in the United States’ interest that sovereignty issues in the Eastern Sea be settled by negotiations, not force, it sent a shockwave through the region. Unlike her husband’s conciliatory stance vis-à-vis an expanding China, the Secretary of State seemed ready to challenge China’s dominance in the Eastern Sea when she declared, “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.” Now the United States is making good on its promise by engaging in joint military exercises with China’s neighbor, Vietnam.

Her declaration struck a special chord in Vietnam, the country most affected by China’s aggressiveness. Vietnam’s skirmish with China resulted in the near depletion of Vietnam’s navy in 1988.

The Chinese navy, in fact, frequently killed or harassed Vietnamese fishermen operating within Vietnam’s territorial waters. These incidents added to a consistent pattern of Chinese expansionism: conquest of the Paracel Islands in 1974; occupation of the Spratly archipelago in 1979; and annexation of the 12,000 square kilometers of territorial waters in the Vinh Bac Bo (Gulf of Tonkin) conceded by Hanoi, under the 2000 Vinh Bac Bo Pact.

Young Vietnamese flocked to Internet chat rooms to hail the new U.S. assertiveness as a necessary counter-weight approach to Chinese expansionism. One reporter wrote that Hillary Clinton’s statement “lit up the faces of people deadlocked and saddened by the risk of losing the country entirely.” One Vietnamese journalist reported that he would write a letter to President Obama to commend him for his firmness in dealing with the new Chinese threat in South-East Asia.

To add teeth to Clinton’s statement, the heavily armed super aircraft carrier, George Washington, made its way through the Eastern Sea along Vietnam’s coast in August -- after a high profile exercise with the South Korean navy following the sinking of a South Korean warship allegedly by a North Korean torpedo. A group of high-ranking Vietnamese military and civilian officials was flown onto the aircraft carrier cruising 200 miles off the port of Danang, the site of the landing of the first contingent of American marines in March 1965. Two days after the George Washington stop, on August 10, the USS John McCain destroyer paid a port call to Danang to participate in training exercises with the Vietnamese navy.

However, what angered China most was not the U.S. navy port calls to Vietnam but reports of a controversial U.S.-Vietnam nuclear fuel and technology deal that could allow Vietnam to enrich uranium on its soil. A nuclear-armed Vietnam, in the long run, would constitute a far more formidable deterrent to China’s territorial ambitions than it is now.

Lost amid the new geopolitical realignment and rising US-Sino tensions in South-East Asia, however, is the fact that Vietnam is itself caught in an insoluble political dilemma. There is a saying in political circles in Vietnam that if you appease China you lose the country, but if you follow the United States you lose the Communist Party because the influx of new ideas, technology and money would accelerate a democratization that could ultimately bring down the corrupt and unpopular regime.

For Vietnam communist leaders, it is a lose-lose situation because the continuous erosion of the nation’s territorial integrity could trigger a popular uprising and even a revolt within the army that had fought a bloody border war against China in 1979 and has grown increasingly frustrated with the party leadership’s subservience to Vietnam’s historic enemy to the north.

As for the United States, it is once again in a position to exert its leverage in this strategic area of the world. By conditioning the granting of military support on the improvement of Hanoi’s human rights record, the United States could help ensure a free and democratic Vietnam that would be better able to stand up to Chinese expansionism.

Ironically, 35 years after its humiliating defeat, the United States – without firing a shot -- is closer than ever to realizing its original goal of an independent and non-Communist Vietnam for which 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands South Vietnamese have given their lives.

Thi Lam, a former general in the South Vietnamese army, is the author of "The Twenty-five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon" and most recently, "Hell in An Loc: The 1972 Easter Invasion and the Battle That Saved South Vietnam."