The United States and Vietnam: China’s migraine headache

Ed Ross Contributor
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The visit Sunday to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, cruising off coast of Vietnam, by high-ranking Vietnamese military and government officials was not a big story in the United States. Teams of U.S. military personnel have been conducting MIA-remains-recovery operations in Vietnam for 20 years. U.S.-Vietnam relations have been steadily improving since 1995 when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. A U.S. warship visited Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. It was, however, big news in China, especially in the news reports circulated among China’s ruling elite.

In a world where most cultures and peoples hold grudges from wars fought centuries ago, Americans routinely embrace our former enemies, even when they were the victor. Vietnam War combat veterans and former POWs like Senator John McCain, whose lives were permanently changed by their bitter experiences in Vietnam, have embraced their old antagonists. The U.S. government, a superpower with global interests, takes a forward-looking rather than a backward-looking approach to its foreign relations.

Vietnam-China relations, however, fit a more traditional mold. The Vietnamese people and their Chinese neighbors to the north have a long history of mutual enmity. Vietnam was ruled by Chinese emperors for more than a millennium from the 2nd century BC until the 10th. From the 10th century until it was colonized by France in the late 19th century, Vietnam’s relationship with China was that of a tributary state. The two peoples fought numerous wars with each other over these arrangements.

Communist Vietnam’s founding father, Ho Chi Minh, naturally looked to the Soviet Union and China for support to defeat the French and Americans. But China-Vietnam relations began to sour long before the fall of Saigon in 1975; and in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a short but costly border war with tens of thousands of casualties.

While Vietnam experiments with the economic model China has used to become a successful world economic power while sustaining Communist, one-party rule Vietnam has no intention of allowing itself to become a modern-day tributary state; and it shares the U.S. and other Southeast Asian nation’s concerns about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and the disputed Spratley and Paracel islands. The islands straddle vital shipping lanes, fishing areas, and potentially large oil and gas reserves. It has no desire to provoke China and spark a military conflict like the one in 1988, but it appreciates the subtle effects powerful friends like the United States can have.

The United States and Vietnam have approached military ties with caution, however. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have placed a higher priority on U.S.-China relations than on U.S.-Vietnam relations. Vietnamese leaders didn’t want to allow Washington to make them a pawn in the U.S.-China relationship; and they saw little benefit in a military relationship. Only in the past few years has the U.S. eased restrictions on the sale of military articles and services to Vietnam.

What’s changed recently is China’s increased aggressiveness. The Chinese are feeling their oats. Their increased economic and military power has brought out their middle-kingdom mindset. Chinese leaders have upped the ante in the poker game over U.S arms sales to Taiwan. They have the Obama administration over a barrel on the issue, and they are pressing their demands that the U.S. stop or greatly limit these sales. Administration officials fear that China will do more than just complain loudly and temporarily cut off military interaction with the U.S. if it announces a major new sale.

During Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s March visit to China, intended to signal a thaw in U.S. China relations after the hiatus in U.S.-China military exchanges following the announcement of a $6.4 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, Chinese diplomats referred to China’s interest in the South China Sea as one of China’s “core interests.” This is the terminology they have traditionally used to describe Taiwan and a not-so-subtle hint that it wanted the U.S. Navy to refrain from conducting naval exercises and reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea.

China also was not pleased with the recent U.S.-South Korea naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, which included the USS George Washington, intended to send a strong message to North Korea over its sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan. Nevertheless, the U.S. has a long-standing freedom-of-the-seas policy and aggressively asserts the right of the U.S. Navy to freely navigate international waters. In a July 20 Pentagon briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen made it clear the U.S. would not bow to Chinese concerns on the Yellow Sea exercise.

Beyond freedom-of-navigation issues, the U.S. increasingly is concerned with China’s military buildup and its aggressiveness in the Asia-Pacific region; and it has moved to strengthen defense relations across the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the 27-member Asean Regional Forum in July, where she discussed military cooperation with Vietnam. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has restored interaction with Indonesia’s special forces after a 12-year break over human rights violations. Continued U.S. ship visits, military exercises, and visits by other senior Obama administration officials in the region will follow.

When viewed in this context, it’s easy to understand why the Chinese have an intense interest in the visit of Vietnamese officials to the USS George Washington.

We should not expect any bold advances in U.S.-Vietnam military relations, however. Balance of power is a chess game not a tennis match. Nevertheless, if you could check the pharmacy in Zhongnanhai, the compound where Chinese leaders live, you’d likely find that there has been a run on aspirin.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.