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The Fight for the Future of Asia
Vietnam the Bellwether?

Japan and China are vying for influence over Hanoi, one front in their larger competition for supremacy in Asia. China has been losing of late, according to a recent Wall Street Journal piece:

Beijing and Tokyo have plied the country with investment and aid, with an eye to building up low-cost manufacturing bases there. Vietnam’s strategic location on oil-transport routes also plays a part.

But China’s growing economic role in Vietnam has faced a backlash which intensified after Beijing last year parked an oil rig in waters Hanoi also claims. Since then, China has sought to win over neighbors with pledges of development funds, and bills a new Asian development bank as a consensus-based approach to aid.

How China’s new tack plays out in places like Vietnam, one of the world’s largest recipients of economic assistance, will be another important factor in the regional rivalry.

The piece gets a lot right, but in the fight for the future of Asia Vietnam isn’t exactly a bellwether. There is no real competition between Japan and China here, because for cultural and historical reasons Vietnam would only ever really go with China in extremis. Doing so would mean it had lost, and lost big—it wasn’t just over theoretical mineral deposits that the Vietnamese riots over the Chinese oil rig in its waters turned deadly.

India, on the other hand, is more powerful and important than Vietnam; it is also giving plenty of support to Vietnam; and Tokyo and Beijing are fighting over it more fiercely. Right now, Japan is winning that fight, thanks to the close personal rapport between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Narendra Modi, the ongoing border dispute between China and India, and New Delhi’s fears about China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean. If you’re looking for a bellwether country to tell you whether Japan is succeeding at keeping China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia in check, look to India.

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