Will Vietnam, having suffered immensely at American hands decades ago, tilt towards Washington?
Shunned and shut out from China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Hanoi, Vietnam. Here, the US is courting a country which it once bombed with millions of tons of napalm, leading to a wholesale loss of innocent lives. Now, of course, its tune has changed in a bid to shore up its ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ and contain the rise of Beijing.
The situation may seem favorable to the US, given that Vietnam is located right on China’s periphery, leading to struggles of independence against its much larger neighbor. Additionally, despite also being a communist country, it has a contentious relationship with Beijing owing to territorial disputes over the South China Sea.
Seemingly, as a country with also a very large population, and a cheaper labor force, Vietnam could be in a position to offer a partial economic alternative to China as well. But is it that easy? Can Washington lure Hanoi in as a partner in an anti-Beijing axis? Don’t count on it. As much as Vietnam is open to building partnerships with various countries to sustain its own strategic independence, it is nonetheless under no illusions about the true intentions of the US, and the myriad of risks which growing closer to Washington will bring. The concern is not just because of China’s possible reaction, but also because of the actions of America itself, which will always be Vietnam’s least appropriate ‘friend’ in modern times.
The US sees Vietnam as a strategic counterweight to China, but to what extent can America’s tolerance and patience for Vietnam, a communist country, feasibly last? Partnership with the US will bring the long-term expectation that Vietnam ought to ‘evolve’ to mirror America’s political values and vision, in a vein to expectations the US formerly held towards China. Vietnam is a smaller communist country (at least by Asian standards), and the US will ultimately strive to gain political and economic hegemony over it, and if Hanoi does not conform to Washington’s political preferences, the latter will seek to coerce it.
It is worth noting that presently, US media and politicians are not interested in the issue of ‘human rights’ or ‘freedoms’ in the country, despite Vietnam being сommunist. Vietnamese dissidents are not platformed in the US, or if they are, don’t get nearly as much attention as those of China or North Korea. Despite Vietnam and China having similar systems, as well as the former having become increasingly authoritarian in a way mirroring Xi Jinping’s centralization of power in China, this is being ignored for geopolitical reasons. So, the Western public doesn’t have a problem with Vietnam now, but the moment the US government decides to create critical narratives of Hanoi, public opinion of the country will instantly be transformed and Vietnam will be characterized as a brutal, inhumane, communist regime.
For now, Vietnam’s industries are only at the low end of manufacturing, providing the cheapest of goods. What happens if one day Hanoi creates technologies which challenge US brands and high-end firms? All of a sudden, you’ll also hear rhetoric about how certain products and goods from Vietnam constitute a “national security threat” and should be blacklisted. Under no circumstances will the US tolerate a developed Vietnamese communist state, just as it now doesn’t tolerate China. In the long run, the US still continues to pose an ideological, strategic and military threat to Vietnam, through its attempts to militarize Asia and contain China. Along these same lines, what happens to Taiwan if China falls?
While Vietnam recognizes China as a historical challenge, one deemed to infringe on its sovereignty, at the same time, Beijing is still an important partner to hedge against domination by the US and its allies. When it comes to territorial claims in the sea, China is indeed a challenge to Vietnam. However, Beijing is not a challenger to the legitimacy or affairs of Hanoi’s communist regime, which Mao helped bring to power. In this case, China acts as an ideological guarantee against the US, and it is unwise for Hanoi to encourage Washington in its crusade against Beijing, even if it can reap some benefits from it. This is why Vietnam’s leadership, even against its own public opinion, pursues partnership and pragmatism with China, and will continue to do so.