Vietnam Should Embrace Uncle Sam or Be Subservient to China

Vietnam Should Embrace Uncle Sam or Be Subservient to China

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Recent developments in the South China Sea (known in Vietnam as the East Sea) offer no sign of Chinese expansionism abating in this geopolitically strategic area.

The deployment of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s territorial waters (about 120 nautical miles east of Vietnam’s Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai province) early last May added to a persistent pattern of Chinese aggression in the Asia Pacific, spanning four decades, that includes the occupation of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and of the Spratley archipelago in 1979, as well as the acquisition of 12,000 square kilometers of territorial waters in the Vinh Bac Bo (Gulf of Tonkin) conceded by Hanoi under a pact signed in 2000. This is not to mention China’s claims on the rich gas field near the Natuna Islands, 400 miles northeast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Recently, deadly anti-Chinese protests and riots in Vietnam have helped to bring Chinese aggression to the world's attention, but they also threaten to scare off foreign investors and manufacturers. As manufacturing accounts for 40 percent of Vietnam’s economy, the protests could have a disastrous effect on the nation.

On the diplomatic front, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last May, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung requested, to no avail, support from the member states in Vietnam's struggle to deal with the latest Chinese incursion. But without military backing, ASEAN, established in 1967 in an effort to unite the member states and promote peace and stability in the region, was unable to present an effective counter to China’s aggression.

There is a saying in Vietnam that “if Vietnamese communist leaders follow China, they will lose the country, but if they side with the U.S. they will lose the party.” This is generally correct, although another Vietnamese saying, nuoc mat, nha tan (if we lose the country, the house disappears), gets closer to the truth: if Vietnam's communist leaders lose the country then they will also lose the party, for the simple reason that the party can’t exist in a vacuum.

The worst case scenario has Vietnam's leaders unable or unwilling to protect the nation’s territorial integrity, losing not only their party but their own lives in violent and unruly popular uprisings similar to those which killed President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.

Furthermore, the political histories of Outer Mongolia and Burma show that genuine democratic reforms can help small countries facing more powerful and aggressive neighbors shake off their satellite status and become successfully assimilated within - and get the support of - the community of free nations.

In a final analysis, embracing the United States seems to be Vietnam’s best option in dealing with Chinese aggression, as the U.S. is the only superpower that can counter China’s expansionist policy. This would, however, require Vietnam to implement sweeping reforms, because the U.S. government so far has been reluctant to align itself militarily with the country due its poor human rights record.

A free and democratic Vietnam would not only be a blessing for the long-suffering Vietnamese people. As a country blessed with 3,000 kilometers of coastline, and located immediately adjacent to China, Vietnam could also be the missing strategic link in a wider containment scheme of the Western World against an increasingly belligerent and imperialistic China.

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."