The Vietnam Solution

How a former enemy became a crucial U.S. ally in balancing China’s rise

Vietnam itself began as a southern outpost of Sinic culture. It was forcibly incorporated into China’s Han Empire in 111 B.C. From that time forward, it was occupied by China or under its yoke in tributary status for nearly a millennium. Thereafter, Vietnamese dynasties like the Ly, Tran, and Le were great because they resisted Chinese control from the north, repelling waves of numerically superior armies. “Chinese contributions to Vietnam cover all aspects of culture, society, and government, from chopsticks wielded by peasants to writing brushes wielded by scholars and officials,” Keith Weller Taylor, of Cornell University, writes in The Birth of Vietnam (1983). Indeed, Vietnamese literature was “impregnated” with the classical heritage of China: Chinese used to be the language of scholarship in Vietnam, just as Latin used to be in Europe. Through it all, Vietnamese peasant culture retained its uniqueness to a greater extent than did the culture of the Vietnamese elite. Among the elite, as the University of Michigan Southeast Asia expert Victor Lieberman explains, Chinese administrative norms were “internalized to the point that their alien origins became irrelevant.” The fierce desire of all Vietnamese to be separate from China was reinforced by their contact with the Chams and Khmers to the south, who were influenced by non-Chinese civilizations, particularly India’s. Given their intense similarity with the Chinese, the Vietnamese are burdened by the narcissism of small differences, and this makes events from the past more vivid to them.

Vietnam’s victories over China and over the Chams and Khmers in the south helped to forge a distinct national identity—a process spurred by China’s inability, up through modern times, to let Vietnam alone. In 1946, China colluded with France to have the Chinese occupation forces in northern Vietnam succeeded by French forces. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping “never lost his visceral hatred of the Vietnamese,” Templer writes. In addition to deciding in 1979 to send 100,000 Chinese into Vietnam, Deng devised a policy of “bleeding Hanoi white,” by entangling Vietnam in a guerrilla war in Cambodia.

But now that the land-border questions that helped to feed those conflicts are largely settled, nationalist competition in much of Asia has moved to the maritime domain, namely to the South China Sea. With nearly 2,000 miles of its coastline making up the western rim of the South China Sea, Vietnam suddenly finds itself in the midst of a historic and geographic drama that might come to equal the epic quality of its land wars in the latter 20th century. The South China Sea links the Indian Ocean with the western Pacific, connecting global sea routes through the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar Straits. These choke points see the passage of more than half of the world’s annual merchant-fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia by way of the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that passes through the Panama Canal. Some two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. The sea also has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil are correct, then the South China Sea contains more oil than any other area of the globe except Saudi Arabia.

The South China Sea’s more than 200 small islands, rocks, and coral reefs—only about three dozen of which are permanently above water—are the subject of fierce, arcane, and increasingly geostrategic territorial disputes. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. But Taiwan, China, and finally Vietnam each claim all or most of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010, China created a stir when it was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that; no matter, though. Beijing claims everything inside what it labels a “historic line” and marks on its maps with nine dashes: a grand loop called the “cow’s tongue” completely surrounding the island groups, from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia—that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea. The net result of this expansive claim is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China. They are also increasingly turning to the United States for diplomatic and military backing.

“Land-border issues are no longer important to us compared to the South China Sea,” says Nguyen Duy Chien, the vice chairman of the National Boundary Commission. When we meet in his bare and humble office, Chien, dressed in a drab suit, provides me with a typical Vietnamese performance recalling the Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s 1970s impression of the Vietnamese leadership as deadly serious and “Confucianist.” The meeting starts and concludes exactly on time, and Chien fills the hour with a relentlessly detailed PowerPoint presentation that attacks the Chinese position from every conceivable point of view.

One-third of Vietnam’s population lives along the coast, Chien tells me, and the marine sector accounts for 50 percent of the country’s GDP. Vietnam claims a line 200 nautical miles straight out over its continental shelf into the South China Sea (which Vietnamese call the “East Sea”). This complies with the exclusive economic zones defined in the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Convention. But, as Chien admits, it “overlaps” with maritime areas claimed by China and Malaysia, and with those of Cambodia and Thailand in the adjacent Gulf of Thailand. Chien explains that Vietnam and China have largely settled the problems created by the Gulf of Tonkin—in which China’s Hainan Island largely blocks the northern Vietnamese coastline from the open sea—by dividing the energy-rich gulf in half. “But we cannot accept the cow’s tongue,” he said, meaning China’s historic nine-dashed line in the South China Sea. “China says the area is in dispute. We say no. The cow’s tongue violates the claims of five countries.”

Chien then shows me a series of maps on his computer, and recounts a long history. “When the Ming emperors occupied Vietnam for a time in the 15th century, they didn’t occupy the Paracels and Spratlys. If these island groups belonged to China, why didn’t the Ming emperors include them in their maps?” he asks. “In the early 20th century, why did the maps of the Qing emperors ignore the Paracels and Spratlys if they belonged to China?” In 1933, France sent troops to the Paracels and Spratlys, he tells me, implying that because the islands were part of French Indochina, they now belong to Vietnam. He adds that in 1956 and 1988, China used “military force” to capture rocks in the Paracels. Finally, he displays a slide of the Santa Maria del Monte church, in Italy, which holds a geographical manuscript from 1850, with one and a half pages explaining how the Paracels belong to Vietnam. His obsession with such details has a purpose: another map in his PowerPoint shows much of the South China Sea, including the Paracels and Spratlys, divided into tiny blocks signifying oil concessions Vietnam might in the future award to international companies.

Vietnamese tell me again and again that the South China Sea signifies more than just a system of territorial disputes: it is the crossroads of global maritime commerce, vital to the energy needs of South Korea and Japan, and the place where China could one day check the power of the U.S. in Asia. Vietnam truly lies at the historical and cultural heart of what Obama-administration policy makers and others increasingly label the “Indo-Pacific”—India plus East Asia.

Nothing better illustrates the Vietnamese desire to be a major player in the region than the country’s recent purchase of six state-of-the-art Kilo-class submarines from Russia. A Western defense expert in Hanoi tells me that the sale makes no logical sense: “There is going to be real sticker shock for the Vietnamese when they find out just how much it costs merely to maintain these subs.” More important, the expert says, the Vietnamese will have to train crews to use them—a generational undertaking. “To counter Chinese subs,” the expert says, “they would have been better off concentrating on anti-submarine warfare and littoral defense.” Clearly, the Vietnamese bought these submarines as prestige items, to say We’re serious.

The multibillion-dollar deal with Russia for the submarines includes a $200 million refurbishment of Cam Ranh Bay—one of the finest deep-water anchorages in Southeast Asia, astride the South China Sea maritime routes, and a major base of operations for the U.S. military during the American War. The Vietnamese have stated that their aim is to make Cam Ranh Bay available to foreign navies. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, writes that an unspoken Vietnamese desire is that the Cam Ranh Bay overhaul will “strengthen defence ties with America and facilitate the US military presence in South-east Asia as a counter to China’s rising power.” Cam Ranh Bay plays perfectly into the Pentagon’s “places not bases” strategy, whereby American ships and planes can regularly visit foreign military outposts for repairs and resupply without the need for formal, politically sensitive basing arrangements.

A de facto American-Vietnamese strategic partnership, in effect, was announced in July 2010 at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the South China Sea, that the U.S. is ready to participate in multilateral efforts to resolve territorial disputes there, and that maritime claims should be based on land features: that is, on the reach of continental shelves, a concept violated by China’s historic line. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called Clinton’s remarks “virtually an attack on China.” American officials shrugged off Yang’s comments. Since then, the Obama administration has announced plans to rotate 2,500 marines in and out of northern Australia, declared that Pentagon budget cuts will under no circumstances come at the expense of U.S. forces in the Pacific, and announced the intention—events permitting—to “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific. The United States sees the world as Vietnam does: threatened by growing Chinese power. The difference is that whereas the United States has many geopolitical interests, Vietnam has only one: to counter China.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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