Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit this week is the latest move in a U.S.-China contest for their former enemy.
Soldiers dressed as Vietnam War era Vietcong soldiers march during a parade marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30.
By Paul D. ShinkmanNov. 5, 2015 | 12:01 a.m. EST
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Vietnam today for his first state visit, following a period in which relations between the two communist countries hit their lowest point in decades.
Xi’s trip comes after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter traveled to Vietnam earlier this summer and Secretary of State John Kerry paid his respects in August. President Barack Obama will be in the neighborhood in mid-November for a series of summits in Malaysia and the Philippines, and while a stop in Vietnam is not on his schedule yet, some observers believe he may add it to the itinerary and become the third U.S. president in Hanoi since Richard Nixon.
Why all the fanfare for a nation that spent years at war with such powers? A half century has made a big difference for Vietnam, which for most Americans still evokes a generation mired in messy conflict.
More than 40 years after the end of the U.S.-led war, Vietnam once again has the attention of world hegemons. After restoring formal relations with its former battlefield foes, it has exploited both its booming economy and prime geographic positioning, nestled in a Southeast Asia region that has become increasingly strategic for the U.S. and for China.
“It’s a complex place that Vietnam occupies, both geographically and politically,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It leaves roads open, both to the U.S. and China.”
Foreign powers’ attraction to Vietnam lies in the multiple identities that coexist within one country. Its traditional communist ties make it a natural partner for alliances with Beijing while an increasingly global and forward-thinking younger generation has turned its attention to Washington, New York and Silicon Valley, which in their eyes serve primarily as economic and technological hubs – not the source of widespread firebombing campaigns as previous generations may have believed.
Back then, Vietnamese were guided by the stark warning communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh issued to Western imperialists in 1946: “You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of ours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win,” he said, forming a war doctrine that would become the very foundation of the guerilla tactics his followers would employ to expel three major world powers in the following decades.
After chasing out the French colonists, Ho’s followers opposed the U.S. in an almost 10-year war under the masterful command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who told author Stanley Karnow in 1990 he would have been willing to continue fighting for 100 years to ensure victory, despite massive casualties to his forces. More than 58,000 Americans troops and as many as 800,000 Vietnamese died in that conflict.
Four years after the U.S. withdrawal, China took its turn invading the Southeast Asian nation in 1979, sparking a war involving hundreds of thousands of troops on each side that would last for less than a month. The ferocity of the fighting, however, designed to expel Vietnam from Cambodia, ended with both sides declaring victory and sustaining massive losses.
Vietnam visibly changed in the following half-century. American officials are often quick to say the U.S. won every battle but ultimately lost the war. The streets of Vietnam’s metropolises now, however, feel more friendly to Americans than perhaps any time before.
“When I was in Hanoi, but particularly Saigon, I was thinking that if Ho Chi Minh had come alive and walked the streets for an hour, he would have concluded, ‘The U.S. must have won,'” says retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, a former commander of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and later the ambassador. He now teaches at Stanford University and recently returned from leading a student trip to Vietnam.
“The real winner is the market system. There’s a huge generational change that’s underway.”
Exports account for 86 percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product, extraordinarily more than other advanced countries, such as Germany, for which it is 46 percent, China at 23 percent or the U.S. at 14 percent. Almost 17 percent of all of Vietnam’s exports went to the U.S., more than any other country. In 1994, the U.S. exported $172.9 million in goods to Vietnam. By last year, that number had swelled to more than $5.7 billion.
Yet China remains its biggest vendor, selling Vietnam roughly 28 percent of all of its imports.
Now, the U.S. and China, along with others like Russia, wish to solidify relationships with this burgeoning player that so far has remained fairly neutral in regional affairs. And, in turn, they want to use them against one another.
It’s a balance smaller countries like Vietnam have been forced to strike in dealing with global powers, both for the immediate benefit of trade deals and for protection.
Regional scholar Carlyle Thayer, a professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales – Canberra, calls this the “Goldilocks” model, where countries such as Vietnam benefit from the tension between the U.S. and China that never descends into military conflict and doesn’t quite advance into a strong enough alliance between them that would box out smaller nations – never too hot or too cold, but just right.
Vietnam is wedged between this current arrangement and its history as a communist nation that bloodily earned its independence multiple times. Now it’s battling internally with preserving this identity while allowing greater civil rights to join the world’s most wealthy nations. Dissidents, for example, have become adept at criticizing the central government and not the ruling Communist Party – a distinction that has become easier to make.
In a country of 90 million, 30 million now use Facebook every month, granting its people an access to world communications that differs from countries such as China, where such social media platforms are blocked.
But after steadily increasing trade with both the U.S. and China, slowly moving away from crushing its domestic opposition to Communist Party dominance and becoming more involved in maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam now finds itself caught between the two suitors as they step up military maneuvers in the area that could result in direct conflict.
The torrent of territorial claims in the South China Sea re-emerged last week when the U.S. conducted a “Freedom of Navigation” exercise within 12 nautical miles of islands China has built and claims as its own. In an attempt to appear impartial, the U.S. also sailed within that range of islands both Vietnam and the Philippines claim are theirs.
The key difference was in the reaction.
“This action by the United States threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests and endangers the safety of personnel and facilities on the reef, which is a serious provocation,” said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui of the islands, which China has insisted it has bolstered for scientific and other benign purposes. “The Chinese government will resolutely safeguard territorial sovereignty and legal sea interests, and China will do whatever necessary to oppose deliberate provocation from any country.”
The Chinese government has said it will respond in kind, but has not offered any specifics.
Vietnam, however, acted the way an ally to the U.S. would, particularly one that had advanced warning of these military maneuvers.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh brushed off questions about the incident by saying Vietnam also respects the freedom to transit international sea lanes. He called on all parties to contribute to peace, stability and security.
“It’s something that Vietnam has a lot of experience in the past with, in terms of balancing two superpowers,” says Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky. This was true during the Cold War when Vietnam’s communist history played between the Soviet Union and China, and has proven true again between China and the U.S. “What Vietnam is dealing with now is playing the two superpowers off one another.”
Vietnam and China almost descended once again into all-out warlast year when China moved an oil rig into contested waters roughly 120 miles off Vietnam’s coast. China eventually relented and removed the rig, but not before violent anti-China protests erupted. On one occasion, five Vietnamese and 16 Chinese died and dozens more were injured when a thousand protesters stormed an industrial park in central Vietnam.
In the wake of that confrontation, the Pentagon chief visited Vietnam in May with a very different message, commemorating 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War and 20 years since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations. The U.S. relaxed its arms embargo against Vietnam last year, but has yet to act upon it. Carter announced, however, that the U.S. would begin providing $18 million to help the Vietnamese Coast Guard bolster its fleet, and he returned some artifacts an American GI had taken from a Vietnamese soldier during the conflict.
“With this exchange, we continue to help heal the wounds of our past,” Carter said. “With this visit, we continue to lay the foundation for a bright future. With our work together, we continue to strengthen the region’s security architecture so all our countries and others all around the region can continue to rise and prosper.”
His Vietnamese counterpart, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, used the term “friend” four times during their brief press conference to describe the countries’ relationship.
Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hanoi in August to encourage the government to continue with civil and social reforms to clear the way for even stronger economic ties with the U.S. Vietnam and its garment industry potentially stands to benefit most from an agreed upon Pacific Rim trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The sweeping treaty, however, would exclude China, pending its meeting environmental and labor standards, and as such serves as a point of great anxiety for the Asian power with some viewing the deal as a containment strategy.
Not to be outdone, Xi is scheduled to arrive in Vietnam for a visit Thursday to “draw up a blueprint” for the two countries’ relationship, in another show of resolve in relations between the two nations. He is scheduled to meet with the head of the Communist Party there and to speak before its National Assembly.
It’s believed Xi’s visit was specifically timed to preempt Obama, who is scheduled to visit the region in mid-November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit.
The White House has no public plans yet for Obama to stop in Vietnam – as Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have since the war. But if he’s serious about his Pacific Pivot, this sure would be a good time to consider a visit to Hanoi.