Nearly forty years after the Vietnam War, Hanoi holds no grudges against the United States, in part because nearly all the country’s negative energy today is focused on China. And for good reason: China is big; it’s powerful; it’s right next door; and it has been hostile for two thousand years. Vietnam’s war with the US will never be repeated, but its long history of conflict with China, which is roughly as old now as Christianity, hasn’t been settled and might be revving up yet again.
Earlier this year, Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels squared off in the South China Sea when China installed an oil rig in disputed waters. No one was hurt in this confrontation, but several Chinese nationals in Vietnam were killed later, in response to the incident, when furious mobs of Vietnamese rioters attacked Chinese-owned factories. Thousands of Chinese citizens left Vietnam in the wake of the violence. The government cracked down on what it rightly called “hooligans,” but relations between the two countries remain testier than they’ve been in a quarter-century.
This recent conflict may well blow over, but the tension that sparked it in the first place is not going anywhere. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands farther south are claimed by yet four more countries in Southeast Asia, but China claims almost the entire sea, more than a thousand miles from its own mainland, well south of Vietnam, and nearly all the way down to the coast of Malaysia.
Chinese maps show a so-called “nine-dash line” that supposedly delimits these claims over the sea. The line is also known as the “cow’s tongue line” for its vague U-shape. The United States insists rightly that this line is inconsistent with international maritime law, but Washington takes no position on who owns either the Paracels or the Spratlys. I spent quite a bit of time looking into it myself and had to give up in frustration. There are no right answers. These are legitimate disputes that need to be resolved amicably.
Vietnam refuses to recognize China’s claim over the Paracels, but at least Vietnam recognizes that China is making what it sees as an invalid claim. China, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that Vietnam has an invalid claim, making peaceful resolution all but impossible.
Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”
Most modern wars are fought over power and ideology rather than resources, but a conflict in the South China Sea would be old school. It could begin and end with relatively minor naval skirmishes or it could escalate. Nobody knows. Either way, China and Vietnam are both growing economically and militarily more powerful, and they’re both expanding their presence in the South China Sea at the same time the United States is scaling back, creating a situation ripe with potential for a serious face-off.
“China makes us nervous sometimes,” says Huy Dang, a Hanoi resident from the south who works for General Motors. “Our common sense tells us not to trust the Chinese. We don’t use Chinese products. They’re bad quality.”
But what about the Chinese government and military? Do everyday Vietnamese feel threatened by the colossus to the north?
“Sometimes,” Dang says. “They’ve been here for thousands of years and they’re a big country. Living next to a very aggressive neighbor that’s crazy and big, we feel their presence. We think there will be military conflict over the dispute in the sea. It could be a short conflict like in 1979, but if they keep threatening us we might do something. They have to know they don’t scare us. But a war like the one between Vietnam and America is not going to happen. We live in the modern world now and this is a civilized country.”
If any country in Southeast Asia resists China militarily, it will be Vietnam. No one else is interested or capable, but Vietnam has the ability and will to push back against its “big brother.” Vietnam wouldn’t exist as a sovereign state today if it weren’t eminently capable of pushing back hard. It would have been absorbed long ago like Xinjiang and Tibet. Not only did the North Vietnamese successfully outlast American intervention in the 1960s and ’70s, but Vietnam repelled the Chinese invasion of 1979 in less than a month.
“When small countries worry about big countries, it’s a question of life and death,” says Hoang Anh Tuan, head of Vietnam’s Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “China has invaded Vietnam around twenty times. We’ve had a war on average every hundred years, but since 1949 we’ve had six conflicts. That’s one on average every ten years. The intensity of China’s aggressiveness has been ten times greater since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a serious place where Americans can feel quickly at ease. Its foreign-policy professionals are open and friendly. They see the world similarly enough to Americans that I clicked with them easily. With the end of the Cold War and the end of communism in all but name in Vietnam, Hanoi is a natural ally.
I asked Tuan, who holds a Ph.D. in history, if he expects another war with China. He said of course.
“Why wouldn’t there be another war?” he said. “We’ve had wars with China for twenty centuries. We don’t want any more—we need peace in this country—but we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. We will only fight if we’re forced to fight, but China is forcing us into a corner.”
Communist economics crippled China for decades and made it weaker than it otherwise could have been, but even with all the self-inflicted calamities suffered during the Maoist period China still waged a series of adventures abroad, most famously its invasion and annexation of Tibet in the 1950s. Beijing is less ideological now, to be sure, but it’s also vastly more prosperous and can afford to invest extraordinary resources into building a superpower-class army and navy.
“If China gets away with it,” Tuan says, “who will be the next victim? We’re a front-line state. China could deploy hundreds or thousands of oil rigs inside its nine-dash line. A red line needs to be imposed, and if China crosses it, a price must be paid. And that price must increase every time China crosses it or it will become more aggressive.”
Tuan compares Southeast Asia to Central Europe during the run-up to World War II, and the West’s response to Chinese behavior to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938.
“Germany paid no price for invading and annexing the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. The appeasement strategy adopted by Britain and France didn’t work. If Britain and France would have imposed a price on Germany, we might not have had the Second World War. The world is appeasing China, but it’s better to stop China at the earliest possible stage. The price to stop an assertive China later will be much greater.”
China’s behavior is not even remotely equivalent to that of the Nazis, and in truth Tuan didn’t say it was, but I still had to press him. Does he believe China wants to conquer and rule Southeast Asia? Does he believe its plans resemble those of the Empire of Japan before it conquered the region and instituted its bloody so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?
“No country is so aggressive and assertive at the very beginning,” he says. “If a rising power gets a small victory, it becomes more confident that it can go farther. I’m a strategist, so I look at China in the context of history over hundreds of years. Rising countries create their spheres of influence. Germany did it. Japan did it. The former Soviet Union did it. Now China is doing it. It is following the classic rise of emerging powers in history.”
The oil rig spat is unusual. Vietnam generally prefers to resolve such things quietly, but this time Hanoi was waving the bloody shirt, making as much noise as possible, and trying to make this as publicly painful for China as it could. Vietnam’s leaders are genuinely angry and frightened, not grandstanding or being theatrical.
They want American help, and not only because it would be convenient. Attitudes toward the United States have changed drastically since the 1970s. I knew that in advance before visiting this summer—it’s hardly a secret—but it still left quite an impression.
“I’m twenty-eight years old and don’t remember the war,” Huy Dang told me, “but I read a lot of history and have watched a lot of documentaries about it. It was a bad time, but that’s it, it’s over. If you were to ask ten people in Hanoi about it, eight of them would say it’s okay, it’s in the past.”
In fact, Vietnam is one of the most enthusiastically pro-American places I’ve ever been, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south (which the locals still call Saigon) is especially so.
My hotel manager beamed when he found out I was American. Pulling out a map of the city, he said, “Here is where Pete Peterson was shot down.” (In addition to being a POW, Peterson is a former Democratic congressman from Florida and the first US ambassador to Vietnam after the war.) “He was held in the Hanoi Hilton for seven years with John McCain. We love both of them so much. They’ve done so many good things for our country.”
The Vietnamese treat these former enemy soldiers and prisoners of war like rock stars, even heroes. They may be more loved in Vietnam than they are at home, especially Peterson. Most Americans aren’t familiar with him, but his is a household name in Hanoi.
We know what the Vietnamese think of Peterson now, but what about when he first arrived as ambassador in 1997? I asked him when I telephoned him in Melbourne, Australia, where he lives with his Vietnamese-born wife.
“They were gracious and open and made no attempt to make me feel unwelcome,” he says, “but it took them a while to realize my desire for reconciliation was sincere. I convinced them partly by traveling around the country and talking to people. The government found itself under lots of pressure from regular citizens to work with me because my travels and meetings got so much press coverage.”
He wouldn’t quite describe Vietnam as an American ally, but he said that it certainly wants to become one. “They want to be under an American security umbrella,” Peterson says, “and to be defended from China with an American trip wire, like South Korea.” But the anachronistic weapons embargo imposed in 1984 still hasn’t been lifted. Vietnam can’t buy all the equipment it needs, nor can it repair the equipment we left behind in the 1970s, which it is still using.
The embargo has been out of date for a while. The only time in recent history Vietnam used military force to attack another nation was when it invaded Cambodia in 1979 and demolished the genocidal Pol Pot regime. Vietnam’s actions were based on its own self-interest, but so what? The effect was the same either way. The most vicious regime in Southeast Asia’s history was expunged from the earth. And declaring war against the likes of Pol Pot hardly suggests a country will go to war against a friendly nation like Thailand. Vietnam certainly won’t attack the United States.
China is the only country Vietnam worries about, and the US should share its concerns.
Beijing’s claim to the entire South China Sea could pose a serious threat to maritime navigation. The Chinese are following Vladimir Lenin’s advice. “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” So far Beijing has met only mush.
There’s nothing unusual about China’s desire to dominate the South China Sea. China is the natural hegemon of the region. Its dominance would be no stranger than America’s role as the honcho of the Caribbean, which likewise triggers anxiety in small
The difference is that China’s behavior off its coasts is less like America’s today than America’s when the US was still in its expansionist period, when talk of annexing Cuba sounded plausible to some ears and when Puerto Rico was actually annexed. But even then the US wasn’t an authoritarian one-party state, as Beijing is. Washington brought multi-party elections to Puerto Rico, including the right of Puerto Ricans to vote on their own status—statehood, status quo as a territory, or independence. The idea of Beijing allowing Tibetans or Uighurs to vote on their own status is laughable.
Theoretically, China could dominate the South China Sea in a benign way at some point in the future the way the US does the Caribbean, but China would first have to transform itself politically, and it would also have to push the US Navy out of the area.
The latter might happen before the former. “American naval dominance in the South China Sea is somewhat exaggerated,” Peterson says. “We left it unattended for more than a decade, which is part of what President Obama’s pivot to Asia is about. China wants to grab as much as it can get away with, and its view is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. So it’s putting in oil rigs and daring someone to do something about it.”
Our own strategic interest there is straightforward. More than half the world’s shipping traffic goes through a place where there could be a shooting war that could shut down the entire sea and deliver one hell of a shellacking to economies everywhere in the world. Our primary interest then, more than helping smaller nations resist China, is keeping the peace.
It might happen without us having to do much, if Vietnam were to feel that its ties to the US were stronger.
And there’s always the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” Thomas Friedman described it in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. “No two countries,” he wrote, “that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.” The theory is that countries that reach such a bourgeois state of development are less interested in waging wars than nations gripped by ideological lunacy. A nation with McDonald’s may very well go to war against warmongering creepjobs like Saddam Hussein, but against another bourgeois country? Not likely.
Friedman’s theory is perhaps too cute by half, but it has mostly held up over the years. It was nearly violated when Israel and Hezbollah fought in 2006. McDonald’s has franchises in both Israel and Lebanon. But the 2006 war was not fought between the sovereign states of Lebanon and Israel. It was fought mostly in Lebanon, but not against Lebanon, and Hezbollah, which detests and boycotts McDonald’s, started it. But the current war (can we call it a war yet?) between Russia and Ukraine seems to put the Golden Arches Theory to bed. Still, bourgeois economic integration generally makes armed conflict less likely, even if it isn’t fail-safe.
China and Vietnam might muddle through until they open up their political systems, like South Korea and Taiwan already have, and become more averse to war than they are now. In the meantime, however, both are richer and more powerful than they have ever been, and more aggressive as well. And, with Vietnam, that could be a boon to US policy.
Our relations with China are likely to be difficult and challenging for decades, but it’s long past time to snap up an alliance with Vietnam. It’s ours for the taking, just sitting there and waiting for us to just say yes.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and the author of five books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.