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Vietnam's Dilemma: Follow China, Save the Party; Follow USA, Save the Country


Vietnam and China should be friends. They share a 1,350 kilometer-long border and a similar socialist political culture married to a capitalist economy dominated by state-owned enterprises. Communist parties rule the roost in both Hanoi and Beijing; a strong police force keeps the population in line.

But since 2009 the relationship has been cold and distant. In the South China Sea, on which Vietnam has a 3,260 kilometer-long coastline and territorial claims that clash with China, Beijing’s domineering attitude has alienated the leadership in Hanoi. The Vietnamese accuse Chinese manufacturers of dumping cheap, shoddy or dangerous products in Vietnam, employing too many Chinese workers, frequently missing deadlines, and plundering Vietnam’s natural resources. Vietnam’s energy sector relies heavily and uncomfortably on Chinese contractors. China has built a series of dams on the Mekong River in Yunnan Province and plans to construct perhaps a dozen more in Laos, upriver from Vietnam, threatening the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen downriver. In Vietnam, David Brown writes for Asia Sentinel, “The man in the street wants to hit back.”

China and Vietnam share a complex, distrustful history. Chinese armies have frequently invaded their neighbor to the south, which many in China consider a “willful province that somehow slipped loose from its moorings.” Some of Vietnam’s greatest heroes are generals who fought back against Chinese oppression. The Vietnamese army killed as many as 20,000 Chinese soldiers during a brief war in 1979.

Between 1979 and 2009 the relationship became cordial but it “has become dangerously unstable” since then, Brown writes. “Chinese pressure on political and strategic issues has boxed in Vietnam’s leaders, arguably threatening their survival. Beijing has bolstered its standing among Chinese nationalists by flexing its muscle in the South China Sea, while Hanoi’s ineffectual attempts to fend off Chinese provocations have steadily eroded its position among nationalists at home.”

This is the dilemma faced by the leadership in Hanoi. Voices outside the Communist Party, and even some within it, urge a closer relationship with the United States to balance Chinese aggression. Other Vietnamese officials “gag on American demands that Vietnam allow greater democratic freedoms, fearing that Washington’s true objective is to bring down the Communist regime.”

The Vietnamese may be running out of time to choose. Chinese nationalism and Beijing’s aggressive regional policy are showing no signs of going away. This will only bolster the position of the policymakers who want to counter China with stronger military forces and a closer relationship with Washington. Once again, through a combination of clumsy, short-sighted, and self-defeating policies, Beijing is showing a remarkable ability to drive away potential friends and justify the continued presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

[Truong Tan Sang photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • rheddles

    Or you could say that the US is showing a remarkable ability to drive away potential allies and help pave the way for dominance by China of the Indo-Pacific

  • Corlyss

    Thank God the Vietnamese hate the French and not the US. Even Hillary wouldn’t make the stupid mistakes the US has made in foreign policy since the One ascended the throne.

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