The Unsteady Path to US-Viet Relations

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will return to Tokyo a satisfied man after opening the doors for greater involvement of his country in global security affairs. Although the extent to which Japan will contribute remains to be seen, the new US–Japan defense guidelines have nevertheless been described as “transformative.”

Predictably, China has taken issue with these new guidelines. With Japan and China locked in an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, these new guidelines are undoubtedly viewed in Beijing as an attempt by Japan to strengthen its hand. With a newly recommitted US, Washington may unwittingly find itself drawn to the defense of Japan’s claims over the islands.

Yet, be that as it may, there is no doubt that Japan and the US find China’s rise a cause for much concern. If nothing else, the new guidelines will allow the US and Japan to cooperate further. For the US, this means getting Japan involved in Washington’s pivot to Asia-Pacific.

Strange bedfellows

Security threats certainly make for strange bedfellows. Rewind the clock to December 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible, to find an American who believed the two countries could ever be allies. For four years, the US and Japan were engaged in a bloody war across the Pacific that would end with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese soil.

Today, the memories of Pearl Harbor, Nagasaki and Hiroshima endure; but from the horrors and atrocities of war emerged an alliance that continues to endure. Similarly, Germany has long since transformed from foe to friend, and played a crucial role (as West Germany) in NATO and the defense of Europe during the Cold War.

With Washington’s focus today being on the Middle East and, of increasing importance, on Asia-Pacific, the US may find it necessary to engage former foes to advance its foreign policy. In the Middle East, Iran has emerged as a potential partner in the fighting against ISIS, if not directly at the side of the US then as a silent partner.

In Asia-Pacific, there is far less muddying of the waters regarding where the US has turned to in order to bolster its position. The lines are clearly drawn with Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines as important and long-standing regional allies of the US.

However, far from leaving things as is, the US has also sought to cultivate a potential partnership with Vietnam. At a glance, perhaps no country in the region shares the same anxiety with regards to China’s rise as Vietnam, whose history is replete with wars against its northern neighbor.

China poses an existential threat to Vietnam, where Chinese military, economic, and cultural might threatens to absorb its much smaller neighbor. Independence from China is a dominant theme in Vietnamese history. From this perspective, the Indochinese wars of the 20th century are simply blips on the radar, the French and US a brief interlude away from China.

It was not long after the end of the Vietnam War that Vietnam and China were once again butting heads, culminating with the 1979 Sino–Vietnamese War. In taking advantage of the Sino–Soviet split, Vietnam saw the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to China’s threat. However, with the conclusion of the Cold War, and with both China and Vietnam focused on growing their economy, a tentative peace emerged. But China’s rise and territorial claims have since disrupted this period of non-conflict.

The US may have once been the enemy, but there is undoubtedly an understanding in Hanoi that their old foe is the only superpower capable of keeping China in check. However, to openly court the US is also asking for trouble, for China is unlikely to sit idly by while its neighbor moves to walk hand-in-hand with the US.

Unnecessary political games

Getting Vietnam to join a US security alliance should be a mere matter of asking; but what has instead transpired is a bizarre game of hard-to-get as Vietnam juggles to find its place between the two regional powers. It cannot risk undermining China by going so far as forming an alliance with the US, but it cannot turn away the US either. Consequently, where there at times appears to be progress in US–Vietnam relations, such progress is never without a stumble.

Emblematic of these relations was the signing of the US–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership in 2013. Far from ushering in a new age of US–Vietnam relations, relations between the two countries remain more or less the same.

With the US and Vietnam recalling the Vietnam War differently, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam War, was equally celebrated in different fashions. In the US, a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives sought to honor US and South Vietnamese servicemen and women; while in Vietnam a small ceremony was held at the US consulate in Saigon (since renamed as Ho Chi Minh City).

Conversely, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in a speech before kicking off a parade, criticized the US for “barbarous crimes” against Vietnam and its people. These are strong words and a powerful rebuke of the US; and although such words are unlikely to change anything between the two countries, it is a sign that there remains a lot of work ahead.

It is, as it always has been, less certain where Vietnam stands in the grand scheme of things—the middle, perhaps, but not for long and not forever. For Hanoi, there are no good options. With the US and China vying for influence in Asia-Pacific, Vietnam risks being trampled beneath the two giants. Without a clear and concrete foreign policy, Vietnam will simply be a spectator to the events that matter most to its security.

Actions have consequences, and just as an alliance with the Soviet Union did not deter China from sending troops across Vietnam’s borders during the Sino–Vietnamese War, there is no guarantee that the US will shield Vietnam from China’s ever-growing reach. Nevertheless, time remains for Vietnam to choose its destiny, but should it wait too long and engage in unnecessary political games, it will have nothing in the end.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.