The Vietnam Solution

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

But Vietnam is by no means estranged from China and in the arms of the United States. Vietnam is too dependent on and interconnected with China for that. While the U.S. is Vietnam’s largest export market, Vietnam imports more goods from China than from any other country—cotton, machines, fertilizer, pesticide, electronics, leather, a host of other consumer items. The economy there simply couldn’t function without China, even as China, by flooding Vietnam with cheap products, impedes the growth of local manufacturing. Furthermore, Vietnamese officials are impressed with the geographic asymmetry of their situation: as they say, “A distant water can’t put out a nearby fire.” China’s proximity and the fact that the U.S. is half a world away mean that the Vietnamese have to put up with such indignities as the environmental destruction that comes with Chinese bauxite mining of Vietnam’s lush Central Highlands—a project that, like others around the country, employs Chinese workers rather than Vietnamese ones. “We can’t relocate,” Nguyen Tam Chien, a former deputy foreign minister, tells me. “Statistically, we’re one province of China.”

Because the Soviet Union failed to help Vietnam in 1979, the Vietnamese will never again fully trust a faraway power. Beyond geography, the Vietnamese at a certain fundamental level distrust the United States. One official tells me simply that the U.S. is in decline, a condition worsened by Washington’s continued fixation—despite recent protestations to the contrary—on the Middle East rather than on the rise of China in East Asia. Though such an analysis is self-serving, it may nevertheless be accurate. Then there is the fear that the U.S. will sell out Vietnam for the sake of a warmer relationship with China: Xuan, the foreign-affairs-committee official, specifically mentions Nixon’s opening to China as providing the geostrategic context for China’s invasion of Vietnam. “It can happen again,” he tells me, shaking his head in frustration. One official of the Communist government tells me, “The elephant in the room during our discussions with the Americans is democracy and human rights.” The Vietnamese live in fear that pressure from Congress, the media, and various nongovernmental organizations may one day cause the White House to sell them out the way it has sold out autocratic Asian countries: Uzbekistan and Nepal, for example. “The highest value should be on national solidarity and independence,” Le Chi Dzung, a Foreign Ministry deputy director-general, tells me, trying to explain his country’s political philosophy. “It is the nation, not the individual, that makes you free.”

In fact, the survival of Communist rule in the face of Vietnam’s rampant capitalism is partly explained by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s nationalist credentials, now that it has governed the country during wars against the French, Americans, and Chinese. Moreover, like Tito in Yugoslavia and Enver Hoxha in Albania, Ho Chi Minh was a home-grown leader, not one imposed on the country by an invading army. The Vietnamese Communists have played up the similarities between “Ho Chi Minh Thought” and Confucianism, with their respect for family and authority. “Nationalism builds out from Confucianism,” Le Chi Dzung, of the Foreign Ministry, says. Neil Jamieson, the author of Understanding Vietnam (1993), writes about “that common Vietnamese quality of ‘absolutism,’’’ an assumption of “some underlying, determinative moral order in the world.” This characteristic, in turn, is related to the idea of chinh nghia, which might be loosely translated as one’s social obligation to one’s family and larger solidarity group.

Yet another reason Communism persists here is that its very substance is slipping away. Vietnamese are in a situation similar to that of Chinese: they are governed by a Communist Party that has all but given up Communism, and have accepted an implicit social contract under which they agree not to protest too loudly as long as the party guarantees higher income levels. Indeed, Vietnam’s rulers cannot ultimately be estranged from those of China, for they have both embarked on the same experiment: delivering capitalist riches to a country ruled by the Communist Party.

In a quarter century, Vietnam has gone from using ration books to enjoying one of the largest rice surpluses in the world. It recently graduated, in statistical terms, to a lower-middle-income country, with a per capita GDP of $1,100. Instead of a single, all-powerful, but largely ineffective leader whose picture is plastered over billboards, as has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries, Vietnam’s faceless triumvirate—the party chairman, the state president, and the prime minister—has delivered an average of 7 percent annual growth in GDP over the past decade. Even in the teeth of the Great Recession in 2009, the local economy grew by 5.5 percent. “This is one of the most impressive records of poverty alleviation in world history,” a Western diplomat says. “They have gone from bicycles to motorcycles.” That, to the Vietnamese, may be democracy. And even if it isn’t, one can say that the autocracies of Vietnam and China have not robbed people of their dignity the way those of the Middle East have. “The leaders of the Middle East stay in office too long and have maintained states of emergency for decades,” a former high-ranking Vietnamese political leader tells me. “That is not the case here. But the problems of corruption, huge income gaps, and high youth unemployment, we share with countries of the Middle East.”

What spooks the Vietnamese Communist Party is less the specter of the Arab Spring than that of the student uprising in China in 1989, when inflation was almost as high in China as it has been in Vietnam until recently, and corruption and nepotism were perceived by the population to be beyond control—again, the case with Vietnam today. And yet, party officials also worry that political reform might take them down the path of pre-1975 South Vietnam, whose weak, faction-ridden governments led to that state’s collapse; or that of late-19th- and early-20th-century China, with its feeble central authority that led to foreign domination. Vietnamese officials openly admire Singapore, a predominantly single-party company state that emanates discipline and clean government—something that eludes Vietnam’s corruption-riddled regime.

In the meantime, Vietnam’s Communist leaders will continue to rely on their Prussianness, their capitalist economic policies, and their tight political control to maintain their state’s independence from China. They know that, unlike the countries of the Arab Spring, their nation faces an authentic outside adversary, however ideologically akin, whose threatening proximity helps to temper popular aspirations for greater political freedom. But like India’s leaders, Vietnam’s are wary of any formal treaty arrangement with the United States. In fact, if the necessity of a defense treaty with the United States ever arose, it would indicate that the security situation in the South China Sea region had become more unstable. In any case, the fate of Vietnam, and its ability not to be Finlandized by China, will say as much about the American capacity to project power in the Pacific and around the world in the 21st century as Vietnam’s fate did in the 20th.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, to be published in September.

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