Dispatch from Vietnam: Will the US Foster a Natural Ally?

My latest essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online. Here's the first part:

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?

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