Vietnam’s Sino-US dilemma

Posted on August 31, 2012

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Hanoi finds itself in a Catch-22 situation over threat of conflict in South China Sea

In Hugh White’s latest book, “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power“, the Australian professor argues that, for the sake of regional peace, the United States and China should carve up Asia between them. In particular, the US should consider ceding Indochina to China, the former defence official added.

That suggestion has caused apoplexy throughout the region, not least from Vietnam, given its chequered history with China.

But if one takes the hard-headed realist’s perspective, one can argue that Vietnam being subsumed into a Chinese sphere of influence is nothing untoward. After all, China dominated Vietnam in four instances between the first and 15th centuries.

During the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, communist China poured military and economic aid into North Vietnam as it fought the US, leading both parties to describe their relationship as one between “lips and teeth”.

That said, however, “lips and teeth” became a severe case of gingivitis and decay. In 1971, Beijing’s rapprochement with Washington was a prelude to a border clash between China and Vietnam in 1979.

In 1988, the two countries fought over the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys. The bad blood continues today, as Hanoi and Beijing clash over territory in the South China Sea.

No wonder, then, that Sino-Vietnam ties are today nothing short of complicated. As Dr Tim Huxley, the director of the Asia branch of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, puts it, Vietnam spent a millennium resisting China’s influence. Putting Vietnam in China’s orbit would be tantamount to “starting a war”, he added.

Former Agence France-Presse journalist Robert Templer, in his 1999 book “Shadows And Wind”, thought so too, saying the “overwhelming emphasis” of official Vietnam history has always been one of resistance to China.

He cites the example of Ho Chi Minh, the Sinophile leader of Vietnam who spent his holidays in China. Asked whether it would be better in 1945 to be under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army or to have the French back in Vietnam, Ho’s famous reply was that he “would rather sniff a little French s**t for a few years than eat Chinese s**t for the next thousand years”.

But faced with the looming threat of growing Chinese power, Vietnam has not been bereft of geopolitical ideas.

Like many Asian countries, Vietnam has adopted the prevailing diplomatic strategy of engagement and “not choosing” between China and the US. Hanoi has displayed some semblance of solidarity with Beijing. Since the normalisation of relations in 1991, both sides have robust mechanisms to manage their relationship, with more than 100 delegations exchanged annually. China is also Vietnam’s biggest trading partner.

Vietnam has also sought to repair and build relations with the US as strategic insurance against China. It has permitted visits by US naval ships to its ports. In June, Vietnam hosted US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to the country, signalling that relations had reached a new level.

But engaging both China and the US has its limits. After all, the Vietnamese harbour a visceral distrust of the Chinese, from a millennium of history, and of the Americans after the bruising Vietnam War.

This is where the second plank of Hanoi’s strategy comes in – enmeshment.

By locking China into a network of regional bodies – such as the East Asia Summit and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) – Vietnam hopes the norms embodied by such entities will tie down China’s Gulliver with a lattice of Lilliputian ropes.

Enmeshment is not new. Writing in the Business Times in 1992, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official Nguyen Hong Thach said Sino-Vietnamese relations should be meshed within the “much larger network of economic and political interests”.

In 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton riled the Chinese no end when she declared at an ARF meeting in Hanoi that Washington was ready to play a role in multilateral talks for a settlement to the South China Sea dispute.

Some analysts suspect that Clinton’s declaration was partly aided by Hanoi’s position as Asean chair that year. Getting China involved in multilateral talks would have strengthened the position of smaller countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.

At recent Asean meetings in Phnom Penh, Vietnam tasted some of its own medicine. China used its influence on Cambodia – the Asean chair – to stop the issuing of a communiqué that would mention the South China Sea.

That was a diplomatic coup for China. But the victory stoked regional fears of overweening Chinese ambition, and Beijing’s foreign minister had to go on a quick tour of the region to control the damage.

In the long run, Hanoi’s dual strategy of engagement and enmeshment will reap dividends. But the dual strategy can last only if Hanoi does not need to choose between Beijing and Washington.

Recent tensions in the South China Sea suggest Vietnam might soon be forced to make a choice.

The Philippines, already embroiled in a diplomatic tussle with China over the South China Sea, is clearly trying to cash in on its military alliance with the US.

Vietnam’s increased interaction with the US military might predispose it to call for Uncle Sam’s aid if there is conflict with China.

Professor White alluded to this in his recent book. In one scenario, Vietnam and China trade blows over another South China Sea incident, and Hanoi calls for America’s help. This ratchets up tensions rapidly, risking nuclear war between China and the US.

Therein lies the dilemma for Hanoi if it fights Beijing over the South China Sea again. It will find itself in a Catch-22 situation – call on the US and risk an escalation in hostilities, or give in to China and risk being sucked into its orbit – yet again.

The Nation

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Posted in: Economy, Politics