Vietnam’s Continuing Struggle with China and the Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

Shadow of the Dragon: Vietnam’s Continuing Struggle with China and the Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

Andrew Scobell

By Henry J. Kenny. Washington: Brassey’s, 2002. 176 pages. $49.95 ($24.95 paper).

With the end of America’s Indochina war in the 1970s and the passage of time, Vietnam has slipped from the collective consciousness of US policymakers and the general public. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is no longer America’s adversary, and in 2003 the sights of the George W. Bush Administration are focused on the “Axis of Evil” triumvirate and the tentacles of global terrorist networks.

Today, communist Vietnam seems relatively inconsequential to the United States. What significance can a moderate-sized Southeast Asian country of 77 million experimenting with free-market economics and ruled by a seemingly anachronistic and repressive Leninist party-state have for the United States? Henry Kenny, a long-time Vietnam watcher, contends that Vietnam’s significance is that it represents a counterweight to China in Southeast Asia. He asserts that encouraging a more strategically self-assured, economically vibrant, and democratically oriented Vietnam is in the US national interest.

Kenny highlights the tyranny of geography, which dooms Vietnam to be forever in the shadow of the giant Chinese dragon. Indeed, in terms of population and area, Vietnam is roughly equivalent to a medium-sized Chinese province. As a consequence Vietnam has learned to be extremely wary of antagonizing its vast northern neighbor. That is not to suggest that Vietnam’s relations with China have always been warm or even cordial. On the contrary, as Kenny notes, relations have tended to go through a cycle of cooperation and conflict, a pattern that dates back centuries. But mostly Vietnam has tended to accommodate China.

While the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements were allies in successive struggles against the French and then against South Vietnam (and its major patron, the United States), there were underlying tensions in the relationship which bubbled to the surface in the form of a brief but bloody border war in early 1979. The bad blood persisted until the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pragmatic concerns of both party-states resulted in a rapprochement. In 1999 the two countries resolved most of their land border disputes and the following year reached an accord over the dispute in the Gulf of Tonkin. Nevertheless, territorial disputes remain over islands and waters in the South China Sea. According to Kenny, four of the five potential flashpoints in the sea involve disputes between China and Vietnam. “Future conflict [between China and Vietnam] over the South China Sea,” Kenny contends, “is a definite possibility.”

Vietnam is circumspect where China is concerned and, hence, extremely cautious in improving ties with the United States. Certainly Hanoi has been hesitant to host senior US officials, especially defense figures. A visit by Defense Secretary William Cohen, for example, had to be postponed twice in the late 1990s and finally took place in 2000. A visit in early 2001 by Commander of US Forces in the Pacific Admiral Dennis Blair was canceled by Hanoi literally at the last minute.

Beijing is clearly interested in the course of US-Vietnam relations. There is, for example, great curiosity in China over the prospect of Cam Ranh Bay becoming a US naval facility. Kenny believes that Beijing is concerned about US influence in Southeast Asia, US military influence in Vietnam, and expanding economic ties between the United States and Vietnam.

The author contends that the United States can be a useful role model to Vietnam, and this is true. But perhaps more relevant to Vietnam’s leaders and its ordinary people are the examples of other Asian states. Kenny points to several possibilities. Potentially of great importance here is Taiwan. The island offers a prime example of a success story in terms of the economic and political development of a small state also living in the shadow of the dragon. Taiwan is Vietnam’s second largest foreign investor (Singapore is number one), and as many as 20,000 Taiwanese expatriates live in Vietnam. The accession of both Taiwan and China into the World Trade Organization in December 2001 has made joining the WTO a top priority for Hanoi.

A key question in the mind of this reviewer is: How realistic is it to expect that Hanoi will take the author’s recommendation and balance against China by moving to establish closer ties with the United States? Certainly, of the four China policy options that Kenny outlines, the “due respect” alternative is, on the face of it, the most sensible for Vietnam. But, in the final analysis, how confident can Vietnam’s Leninist rulers be of retaining their own hold on power? As rulers of one of the world’s last remaining communist party-states, Vietnam’s political leaders are an insecure if not paranoid group. For them, national security entails not merely confronting external threats but also facing subversive internal threats. In short, will Hanoi’s leaders be able to look beyond what Kenny admits is a preoccupation with “regime maintenance,” and think of what is in the best interests of all Vietnamese? In this context it is more likely that the Leninist minnow of Vietnam will stay within its comfort zone, retain strong ties to its whale-sized fraternal socialist neighbor next door, and keep a prudent distance between itself and the United States.

Overall, this concise volume is strongly recommended for its valuable up-to-date survey of China-Vietnam relations. The author presents, in sympathetic terms, the challenge Vietnam faces in the ever-present shadow of the dragon. Sources are a blend of primary sources in translation and secondary English-language materials, along with a smattering of interviews with Vietnamese analysts and officials. The informative text is enhanced by five useful maps and a variety of helpful charts and figures. This volume will be of interest primarily to the nonspecialist, who will find the current state of Sino-Vietnamese relations placed in proper perspective with an authoritative survey of history, economics, and territorial disputes.

Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Scobell, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group