As China continues its foray in the South China Sea in defiance of international law, it is almost impossible to describe the loathing ordinary Vietnamese have for China. Equally, it’s difficult to calculate the ignorance in which ordinary Vietnamese labor under regarding the very real danger that conflict with China could break out at any time.
Vietnam, a country of 90 million isn’t scared of war with anyone, however. That’s especially true of China with a population of 1.5 billion. Vietnam might even be fatally resigned to war. But today, Vietnamese grasp for the larger hope… and American help.
The “American War” — as the Vietnamese refer to the war we call the” Vietnam War” — is over. And if that war was fought only for the hearts and minds of Vietnamese, America won that war. But so too did Vietnam. Vietnamese won the right to govern themselves… or not. But that’s up to them. Still when in real trouble, a country increasingly pushing its children and professionals to learn English is turning to America to guarantee its independence. Not grant them independence, but guarantee it. That is because America is almost universally respected in Vietnam as a model country, even if the war was painful for both sides.
In contrast, Chinese ambitions in Asia are serious, Vietnamese know, because these ambitions run like a scar down the thousand year history and culture of Vietnam. America has already showed it has no interest in governing Vietnam. The U.S. proved it when they left 40 years ago. Instead, today, America is being called upon only to guarantee Vietnam’s territorial integrity. In other words, when Vietnam’s independence is at stake, Vietnam expects America to help protect it.
One thirty- year old Vietnamese English teacher told me that she thought the Chinese design was to turn Vietnam into colony over the next 10 years to supply Vietnamese women to Chinese men, as China has a shortage of women. Another university student told me that she believed that China was purposefully sending to Vietnam vegetables poisoned with chemicals to slowly kill Vietnamese.
“You need to know that Vietnam has been invaded by China for 1,000 years,” a computer engineer from Saigon recently told me. “Compared to that, the wars against others are nothing.”
It’s not just ancient history either. Since the end of the American War, Vietnam and China have had several dust-ups, including the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Add to it the naval action at sea in 1988 over the Spratly Islands—islands again now at issue– it’s easy to see how Vietnamese view China as a real danger. China has defied world opinion on the South China Sea with Chinese military sources anonymously but publicly warning Vietnam that they could face punitive consequences if they continue to cozy up to America and Japan.
“We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979,” one anonymous source close to the Chinese military told Reuters News Agency in late July, seemingly advocating for a Chinese invasion of Vietnam. In a China that has seen serious restrictions on freedom of the press, such a story from anonymous sources close to the military are tantamount to official announcements from Beijing. While the story emphasized that the government was “resisting pressure” from the military leaders for action, it’s hard to give credence to the idea the China’s government, which is retiring 300,000 soldiers with pay—to improve fighting efficiency—is not dictating to rather than resisting anything.
The warnings are certainly meant for official Hanoi. Yet still, the large majority of ordinary Vietnamese seems ignorant of current events in China or in the South China Sea— or as the Vietnamese put it, the “East Sea”. Even Vietnamese in shipping and oil and gas, industries that require operation of vessels in the “East Sea”, seem largely ignorant of any danger of military action in the current conflict. For sure they are worried, however. Everyone expresses concern about China, but their level of concern doesn’t seem immediate.
The Vietnamese government is wary about openly expressing opposition to China too stridently. While they are not scared of China, they also don’t want to openly antagonize China, either. Politics for ordinary Vietnamese just doesn’t exist, either. Information is generally available, but the desire to know is lacking.
So how can the U.S. help Vietnam from a threat its citizens know little about? For starters, we can train the Vietnamese military in English, duties which are currently performed by the Indian military. And while lifting the arms embargo on Vietnam was a good step, without other material help from the U.S. it will be meaningless.
America can help Vietnam greatly by not minimizing firstly Vietnamese capacity for self-defense. They are adept war fighters who really need material and logistical support more than manpower. These are not Syrians or Iraqis or Saudis incapable of self-defense. While frontline troops number only 500,000– about a third of those available to the U.S.– for a small, poor country, Vietnam has a very large reserve force owing to compulsory military service—a circumstance created by Chinese invasions. In fact Vietnam’s active and reserve forces combined are larger than China’s. That is by design, not by happenstance. More aircraft are needed and as well as a better anti air systems and multiple launch rocket systems. Aircraft is likely too costly for Vietnam, but the other systems are affordable with American help.
Where Vietnam needs the most help materially, however, is by expanding their capabilities at sea. Ironically, the current Chinese naval expansion could very well make them more vulnerable to less expensive anti access area denial weapons and tactics that the Chinese wish to employ against the U.S. China’s naval expansion paints a much broader target for a small country like Vietnam to exploit against China. The country geographically is bound to China’s southern flank and traverses the length of the East Sea, providing Vietnam with a broad area from which to attack China at sea.
But also consider the strategic value of Vietnam in traditional U.S. Naval doctrine. Maritime patrol aircraft, for example, like the P3 Orion, capable of anti-submarine duties, could operate from Vietnam. They have the benefit of being: 1) still effective and 2) relatively inexpensive to operate.
In this case, you can think of Vietnam as a permanent fleet parked off the coast of China, but unsinkable.
Certainly China could try to conquer Vietnam; however, the Vietnamese are pretty good at self-defense.
And that brings us to what Vietnam really needs most from America: Money.
Not much, just a little comparatively speaking.
Last year Vietnam spent about $4.5 billion on defense spending ranking it 63rd out of 197 countries according to data compiled by the Stockholm Peace Institute. While Vietnam still enjoys one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and it is expected to continue to grow, its economy is too small to generate the type of defense spending that it needs to secure the country. By contrast the U.S. defense budget is about $600 billion.
The United States could provide financial assistance, indeed, probably should provide financial assistance to Vietnam, because without U.S. financial assistance, the lifting of arms embargo is meaningless for both countries. Without financial assistance Vietnam is not a real ally to the United States in South East Asia. She can only be a liability. Without financial assistance Vietnam can only continue its hodgepodge of purchases from sometimes India, but primarily from Russia for self-defense. Yes, the same Russia that recently participated in “island seizing” exercises with the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea.
Vietnam as we know has the will to maintain its independence and rule itself. America found that out. But we also found out that U.S. has a place in the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, despite the war. The question now that goes beyond winning the heart and minds of the Vietnamese people is this: Will the U.S. provide funds to Vietnam to defend itself so American troops don’t have to?
I can’t think of a better deal for America and American troops than that.
John Ransom is finance and economics writer/editor with offices in DC, Singapore and SE Asia specializing in global markets and security.