The Vietnam Solution

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

A woman tends her boat in the fishing village of Vung Tau, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. (Darren Soh)

The effect of Hanoi is cerebral. What the Vietnamese capital catches in freeze-frame is the process of history itself—not merely as some fatalistic, geographically determined drumroll of dynasties and depredations but as the summation of brave individual acts and nerve-racking calculations. In the city’s History Museum, maps, dioramas, and massive gray stelae commemorate anxious Vietnamese resistances against the Chinese Song, Ming, and Qing empires in the 11th, 15th, and 18th centuries. Although Vietnam was integrated into China until the 10th century, its political identity separate from the Middle Kingdom ever since has been something of a miracle—one that no theory of the past can adequately explain.

In fact, the Vietnamese historical imagination has a particular intensity about it. The depth and clutter of the Ngoc Son Temple (which commemorates the 13th-century defeat of the Yuan Chinese), its copper-faced Buddha embraced by incense, gold leaf, and crimson wood and surrounded by the pea soup–green Hoan Kiem Lake and its leafy shores, constitute spiritual preparation for the more austere mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself. Ho, one of the great minor men of the 20th century, fused Marxism, Confucianism, and nationalism into a weapon against the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, laying the groundwork for Vietnam’s successful resistances against three world empires. His mausoleum gives onto distempered, century-old European buildings and churches in what was once the nerve center of French Indochina—an iffy enterprise that Paris tenaciously tried to prolong after World War II, forcing a war with the Vietnamese that culminated in France’s signal humiliation at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Beyond these edifices come the city’s latest epic struggles against fate: its screaming, pulsating business district, with hordes of motorbikes—the drivers texting on cellphones in traffic jams—and cutting-edge facades that invade an otherwise cruddy-drab jumble of storefronts. This is pre–chain store capitalism, with cafés everywhere, each different in mood and design, offering some of the best coffee in the world, and no sign of Starbucks. Despite all the history, Hanoi is no outdoor museum like the great cities of Europe. It is still in the ungainly process of becoming—closer to the disheveled chaos of India than to the alienating sterility of Singapore.

Vietnamese are now prying their way into the developed world—for the sake of themselves and their families, obviously, but also to preserve their independence against an equally dynamic China. And as it has been since antiquity, Hanoi remains a city of nervous political calculations, the price of being a potential middle-level power—the 13th-most-populous nation in the world—with a long coastline at the crossroads of major maritime routes and close to immense offshore energy deposits. On my visit there last year, I found a country seized not only with the imperative of economic development but also with the challenge of finding a modus vivendi with its age-old neighbor and hegemon—a challenge that it increasingly looks to the United States, its onetime adversary, to help meet.

That may demand that Americans, at least, shift their historical perspective and try to see the world through Vietnamese eyes. Ngo Quang Xuan, the vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, tells me that the critical year for contemporary Vietnam was not 1975, when South Vietnam was overrun by the Communist North, but 1995, when relations were normalized with the United States, and Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and signed a “framework” agreement with the European Union. “We joined the world, in other words,” Xuan says, admitting that before making these decisions, “we had many hard discussions among ourselves.” For the truth is that despite their successive victories over the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese Communists, as their officials explained to me in a series of conversations over several weeks, felt continually humbled by events thereafter.

Consider: Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978, liberating that country from the genocidal madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Though the invasion was an act of cold-blooded realism to blunt the strategic threat posed by the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge, it had a vast and profoundly positive humanitarian effect. Nevertheless, for this pivotal act of mercy, pro-Soviet Vietnam was embargoed by a pro-Chinese coalition that included the United States, which, ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, had tilted toward Beijing. In 1979, China itself invaded Vietnam, to keep Vietnam from marching through Cambodia to Thailand. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union never came to the aid of its client state. Vietnam was now diplomatically isolated, stuck in a quagmire in Cambodia and burdened by back-breaking poverty, largely as a result of its own militarism. The Vietnamese leaders of the 1970s, wrote Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 2000 memoir, were “insufferable,” priding themselves as the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.” But the arrogance, as Vietnamese leaders have told me, didn’t last. Severe food shortages and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 forced Vietnam to pull its troops out of Cambodia. Vietnam was now utterly friendless, its triumph over the Americans a distant memory. “The feeling of victory in that war was always muted,” a Vietnamese diplomat tells me, “because there was never a peace dividend.”

“The Vietnamese don’t have amnesia regarding the war against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s,” a Western diplomat explains. “Rather, a certain generation of Americans is stuck in a time warp.” The Vietnamese have not forgotten that 20 percent of their country is uninhabitable because of unexploded American ordnance; or that, because of the defoliant Agent Orange, nothing will ever grow again on significant parts of the landscape. But three-quarters of all Vietnamese were born after the “American War,” as they call it to distinguish it from all the others they have fought before and since, and an even larger percentage have no memory of it. The students and young officials I meet at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, an arm of the Foreign Ministry, are further removed chronologically from the American War than Baby Boomers are from World War II.

Another reason Vietnamese harbor relatively few sensitivities about the American War is that they won it. In a town hall–style meeting with me at the Diplomatic Academy, with a bust of Ho in the room, students and officials tell me that they have been, in fact, critical at times of the United States, but for reasons having nothing to do with the war. They’d been upset that America had not intervened against China in the 1990s, when Beijing challenged the Philippines’ ownership of Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Island Group in the South China Sea. One student summarizes, “U.S. power is necessary for the security of the world.” Indeed, one after another, students and officials at the Diplomatic Academy use the term balancing power to describe the United States vis-à-vis China. “The Chinese are too strong, too assertive,” one female analyst says. “That is why a Pax Sinica is very threatening to us.”

Whereas America has been marginal to the Vietnamese past, China has been central. “The overwhelming emphasis of official Vietnamese history is on resistance, almost always against China,” Robert Templer writes in a pathbreaking 1998 book about contemporary Vietnam, Shadows and Wind. “The fear of domination has been constant and has crossed every ideological gap, it has created the brittle sense of anxiety and defensiveness about Vietnamese identity.” As one Vietnamese diplomat puts it to me: “China invaded Vietnam 17 times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese fear of China is profound precisely because Vietnam cannot escape from the embrace of its gargantuan northern neighbor, whose population is 15 times as large. Vietnamese know that geography dictates the terms of their relationship: they may win the battle, but then they are always off to Beijing to pay tribute. That kind of situation is alien to a virtual island nation like America.

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.

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.