AMERICAN President Barack Obama’s visit to Hanoi, on his way to Tokyo for this year’s G-7 economic Summit, continues Washington’s protracted courtship of the region’s toughest people—the Vietnamese—who, on Lee Kuan Yew’s testimony, pride themselves in being the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.”
Obama’s visit was marked by the formal lifting of the last restrictions on the sale to Vietnam of American weapons, as well as on US military-aid programs. It signalled to Beijing how far the US has come in its effort to enlist Vietnam’s help in “containing” China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. The arms embargo—tied to Hanoi’s human rights record—has been progressively relaxed since 2014.
Key building blocks
Vietnam, on China’s south-eastern flank, is a key building block in the grand alliance the Americans are constructing to restrain what they regard as China’s expansive tendencies. On mainland Southeast Asia, other critical components of today’s “containment” policy are Thailand, a long-time US ally; and once-hermetic Myanmar, which Obama has already visited twice.
Among all the states the Americans are trying to enlist, Vietnam makes the unlikeliest ally. Between 1963 and 1973, Americans and Vietnamese fought a long and bitter war, from which American diplomacy won no more than a decent interval for the withdrawal of their expeditionary forces.
Until now, students of international affairs commonly date the post-American world as beginning with the inglorious flight of the last Americans from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon 41 years ago.
But since great powers have no permanent enemies, Washington has easily embraced a Hanoi that is itself hedging against Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea and on mainland Southeast Asia.
China proposes to build a network of high-speed trains and highways that will bind the states of the peninsula together and focus them on Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, as the region’s de facto capital.
Vietnam’s millennial war
Vietnamese history is one of unrelenting resistance to the southern expansion of Chinese influence, culture and power. For over a thousand years—beginning in 111 B.C. and lasting until the year 939 of the Christian era—Vietnam, north and south, was part of the Chinese empire.
Not until the middle 1400s did Chinese pressure on Vietnam ease, with the recession of Beijing’s sea power following the epic voyages of the eunuch admiral, Cheng Ho.
But until now the experience of China is impressed on the Vietnamese spirit. China is a huge—and nearby—presence, and also Vietnam’s largest trading partner. As a Hanoi official told the author Fareed Zakaria, “We are clear-eyed. China occupied Vietnam for a thousand years. It has invaded us 13 times since then.”
Though neither Thailand nor Myanmar is involved directly in the South China Sea quarrels, both are at critical junctures because of trends at home.
Thailand faces a dynastic transition: its revered king is near-death; and the generals have seized power once again, to put down yet another rural electoral rebellion confronting the Bangkok elite of royalists, bureaucrats and big business people.
In Myanmar, the military junta—which has ruled the country for much of this last half-century—has recently allowed a measure of political liberalization. Parliamentary elections held in March resulted in a landslide for the oppositionist party of the Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
During the Cold War, Washington’s promotion of electoral democracy, political freedom and human rights had been part of its ideological appeal. But now the crisis in Myanmar has caught the Americans and Suu Kyi in a dilemma.
While the generals have accepted the poll’s results, they have also reserved a quarter of parliament for active-duty soldiers—assuring the junta’s veto power on public policy. Meanwhile, they have prevented Suu Kyi from assuming the presidency. Worst of all, they’ve condoned—if not instigated—disturbances that victimize ethnic minorities.
The most prominent victims of ethnic riots in largely Buddhist Myanmar have been the Muslim Rohingya, numbering roughly 1.3 million, who have inhabited the Myanmar-Bangladesh border region since the 1600s. London’s Queen Mary University reports the Rohingya to be facing the last stages of “state-sponsored genocide.”
Political necessity is forcing Washington to turn a blind eye on gross human-rights violations of this kind from some of its closest allies. Her failure to speak out on the Rohingya issue has also lost Suu Kyi some of her political sheen. For her ex-admirers, she has turned from a global democratic icon into just another political operator.
The United States has regarded itself as an Asia-Pacific power since the 1890s, when, impelled by “Manifest Destiny,” it acquired Honolulu, Pago Pago, Midway, Guam and Manila as naval strongpoints of a ‘forward defense’ policy in the Western Pacific.
Since the end of World War II, Washington has been the fulcrum of the East Asian power balance. Over these last six decades, the American peace has given the East Asian states the breathing spell to put their houses in order, just as it is the American market that has enabled them to expand their economies at the world’s fastest rates.
This is the East Asian status quo that President Xi Jinping is challenging. Xi apparently envisions a future East Asian order with a resurgent China at its center. The New York Times judges Xi’s diplomacy to be his own, and not the collective formulation of Communist Party hierarchs, as was the norm for previous governments.
In the authoritative newspaper’s view, Beijing’s foreign policy is currently driven by Xi’s vision of restoring China to its “rightful” place in East Asia, and “his interpretation of China’s national greatness and military effectiveness.”
China’s relations with the United States, President Xi wants reset on the basis of “strategic reassurance”; respect for “core interests”; and agreed-on “spheres of influence.” And he does not equivocate in setting out Beijing’s claim to virtually all of the China Sea—a claim that, in the long term, incorporates the first group of islands ringing our great inland sea into China’s security, economic and cultural orbit.