With China’s assertive influence expanding in Southeast Asia and the Philippines under President Duterte getting wobbly in its relationship with America, President-elect Trump’s mid-December telephone conversation with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was a welcome one. As Phuc congratulated him on his victory, the President-elect reportedly expressed his desire to accelerate the relationship between the two countries. The timing couldn’t be better. And it couldn’t be worse for a China which poses an enduring threat to both Vietnam and to the U.S. interests and influence in the region. As President, Mr. Trump has the opportunity to embrace Vietnam as a true partner.
To his credit, President Obama lifted a decades long arms embargo against Vietnam in May of last year. The lifting of the sanctions was a major step – one which benefits both the U.S. and Vietnam, enabling Vietnam’s military access to much needed, sophisticated arms and designed to improve defense cooperation between the two countries. For the U.S., that cooperation includes providing more U.S. Navy access to Vietnam’s deep water ports on the doorstep of China.
All of this is unsettling for China, whose intentions against Vietnam have always been particularly onerous. China’s first occupation of Vietnam occurred in 111 BC and lasted 150 years. Three more occupations involving hundreds of years occurred before the Chinese were finally expelled in 1427.
Although China supported Vietnam in their war with the United States, all Vietnamese know that their enduring adversary is China. Interestingly, a Pew Research poll in 2015, 40 years after the end of the war, found that 76% of all Vietnamese had a favorable view of the U.S. Not so with the Chinese, where a 2014 poll showed the number at 16%.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam and China have had several serious conflicts. In 1979, the Chinese invaded Vietnam’s northern provinces but were ultimately pushed back at an estimated cost of 28,000 dead in the one month incident. In 1988 they fought a naval action over the contentious Spratley Islands in the South China Sea, where 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a brief engagement.
Since then China has continued to defy world opinion on the South China Sea issue, building a military base which threatens the region and the other countries who together with Vietnam have long historical claims to various islands, cays, and reefs within the archipelago. For its part, and against Chinese objections, the United States has been transiting the area to assert the right to freedom of navigation within international waters.
In response to the warming ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, China has responded by saying improved relations must not lead to greater pressure on China or threats to its interests. The Vietnamese are listening, but not to the point of trepidation.
Vietnam, a country of 90 million isn’t scared of war with anyone. Active and reserve forces combined are larger than China’s. What they lack, however, is modern military equipment. Much of what they possess dates to the Vietnam War. Other equipment is more modern, but not contemporary.
Vietnam is an appealing partner not only because of the role it can play in diminishing Chinese influence in the region, but also because of what is happening in the Philippines, where President Duterte is actively reaching out to both Russia and China while pushing its century old relationship with the U.S. aside. Duterte likely views both countries as more stable and enduring regional power brokers. How that perception under President-elect Trump will evolve remains to be seen.
On a more tepid note, one area of concern to Vietnam is that President-elect Trump’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership runs counter to Hanoi’s interests. Vietnam is the biggest exporter to the U.S. among the Asia Pacific countries, but Vietnam has already been preparing for a post-TPP era by looking for new markets in China, Russia and the European Union. The President-elect’s stance doesn’t dampen Vietnam’s interest in closer ties with the U.S.
Finally, reports circulate of a growing pro-democracy movement underway in Vietnam. Although officially outlawed by the ruling Communist party, the movement allegedly has certain party leaders wistfully considering it because of the situation with China, its Communist neighbor.
Since the mid-1990s, public criticism of the Communist Party of Vietnam government has expanded to involve thousands of citizens across the country. Today this democratization movement is a significant feature of the country’s political scene, characterized by demonstrations, posted essays, letters and petitions on blogs and other websites, articles published in Vietnam-based online pro-democracy magazines, or views sent directly to government and Party leaders.
Although America lost the war with Vietnam in 1975, the opportunity is now before us to achieve many of the goals the war was about. While democracy may not be one of them in the short-term, working together on diplomatic, economic, and regional security issues clearly is. President-elect Trump can turn history on its heels by fully embracing Vietnam and the Vietnamese. It’s in America’s best interests.