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Spratlys > News > English News > January 2001

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Hanoi hesitant to join U.S. policy on China

San Jose Mercury News - Thursday, Jan. 18, 2001

Mercury News Vietnam Bureau

HANOI -- The new U.S. administration of George W. Bush is expected to take a tougher approach toward China. And Vietnam, a nation with a long history of tension with its giant neighbor to the north, could play an important role in any U.S. attempt to reshape its Asian policy.

But the Vietnamese also are signaling their reluctance at being drawn into any new alliances against China.

That diplomatic hesitation may have been behind Hanoi's last-minute cancellation this week of a visit by Adm. Dennis Blair, the commander of all U.S. military forces in Asia and the Pacific. Blair was on a tour of Southeast Asia that has been widely seen as part of exploring a regional alignment that could be part of a U.S. policy to balance or contain Chinese domination of the region.

``I imagine the new administration will pay much more attention to Southeast Asia, whereas the Clinton administration tended to be pretty Sino-centric,'' said Andrew Scobell, research professor at the U.S. Army War College. ``That's why Admiral Blair has been showing the flag, reassuring our allies and reaching out to countries like Vietnam and India.''

The Vietnamese -- while preaching non-alignment -- may yet pursue their own method of balancing Chinese strength by establishing better relations with the United States, India, Japan and their regional neighbors. But Hanoi will be very careful to give the impression it's not actively engaged in any containment efforts.

"It's not in our self-interest to join any alliances with China or against China,'' said Pham Cao Phong, a professor at the Institute for International Relations in Hanoi, a training academy for future diplomats. ``We just want to be good friends and reliable partners.''

In an astonishing diplomatic insult, the Vietnamese canceled Blair's trip just as he was about to fly in from Laos. An embarrassed Foreign Ministry official in Hanoi said Tuesday night that affairs of state had simply left the Vietnamese ``too busy'' to receive Blair. She said the admiral would be invited back soon.

Off beaten path

Although Hanoi is hardly a routine port of call for a U.S. admiral -- there's no port, for one thing -- previous Asia-Pacific commanders have come to the Vietnamese capital carrying serious diplomatic portfolios. Blair's immediate predecessor, for example, Adm. Joseph Prueher, is now U.S. ambassador to China.

Blair, too, will be no accidental tourist when he finally arrives. He will say publicly what he is supposed to say, that the principal interest of the United States continues to be locating the U.S. servicemen who are listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

But the real substance of Blair's agenda will be talking to the Vietnamese about the security of the globally important shipping lanes in the South China Sea, about eventual U.S. help in improving the tin-pot Vietnamese navy, and about U.S. Navy ships perhaps making port calls at Cam Ranh Bay when the Russian lease of that deep-water facility expires in 2004.

In a visit in March, Secretary of Defense William Cohen hinted broadly at U.S. interest in developing security ties with its former foe, in part to balance China's influence in the region. He suggested to Vietnamese generals that they could gain ``considerable leverage in dealing with China'' by aligning with their regional neighbors.

Cohen's visit, followed by President Clinton's three-day drive-by in November, was intended ``to draw Vietnam into the United States' military engagement plan for the Asia-Pacific,'' according to Carlyle Thayer, a leading regional military expert and a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Some U.S. policy-makers feel the Clinton administration, however, has not been active enough in pursuing this strategy. ``We need to be more engaged there,'' said Scobell. ``Countries in the region have been concerned that the U.S. has been too aloof.''

Spread of influence

The Chinese, for their part, have been extremely active in Southeast Asia. In the past 16 months, Beijing has negotiated long-term friendship agreements with virtually every country in the region, from Burma to the Philippines, from Thailand to Indonesia to Vietnam. And there's real substance to these Chinese deals: roads, ports, bridges, weapons, money.

Also, everywhere in the region, in every country, Chinese goods continue to flood the markets, from steel ingots and cheap motorbikes to phony cosmetics and pirated DVDs.

Colonization isn't called colonization any more -- it's called branding -- and it's no longer accomplished with armies. It's done with merchandise, with soap and toothpaste and bicycles, with instant noodles and color TVs.

``Old-fashioned power politics are still at play,'' said Scobell, ``but perhaps most importantly now it's also economics.''

The Vietnamese are excellent students of both history and geography, which makes them understandably wary of China. Nobody knows more about a China threat than the Vietnamese. As scholar David Wurfel said, ``Fear and distrust of China must surely be the most important emotional foundation of Vietnamese foreign policy.''

At the same time, the Vietnamese are careful to pay Confucian deference to the ``elder brother'' to the north, an approach that's very much part of the Vietnamese heritage. In the 10th century, for example, when a Vietnamese warrior-king finally booted Chinese troops out of Vietnam, he continued to send tribute payments to Peking for fear of compounding the offense of having actually defeated them in battle.

Forty years ago, Chinese and Vietnamese officials liked to say their countries were ``as close as lips and teeth.'' China helped finance Vietnam's wars against the French and the Americans, and Chinese engineers built massive seaports and steel mills for their poor brethren to the south.

But the lips snarled and the teeth began to bite when Vietnam drifted into the Soviet camp in the 1970s. China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979, squabbled over land and sea borders, and argued about communist ideology.

They finally established diplomatic relations 10 years ago, although that rapprochement hardly calmed the diplomatic waters.

Their November 1991 treaty had barely been completed when the Vietnamese received yet another en garde from Beijing: In February 1992, China restated its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, including the much-disputed Spratly Islands, and said it would use force to back up its claims.

The continuing and heated debate over the largely uninhabitable and largely submerged Spratly archipelago is a clear danger to regional stability, although finding a solution has proved as craggy and obdurate as the rocky atoll itself. The six claimants are trying to work out a code of conduct for the area, but with little sign of success.

The Philippines, another Spratlys contender -- along with Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan -- routinely patrols the area and in May seized a Chinese boat that was poaching turtles. The Chinese fishing captain was killed, and Beijing demanded compensation, although the Chinese Foreign Ministry later played down the incident.

Oil and gas reserves in the area, while fabled, are still largely unknown. But even if there's not a single barrel of recoverable oil, the Spratlys remain strategically critical simply because of their location -- smack-dab in the middle of one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

Jockeying for position

It's not surprising, then, that China and Vietnam have rushed to plant territorial markers on every pathetic outcropping of rock that gets exposed at low tide. On the larger reefs and islets, they have installed signal stations, naval dockages or ``fishermen's shacks'' -- poorly disguised military garrisons that must be regularly provisioned.

But for all the maritime activity and political posturing over the Spratlys, a solution there will be years in the making. In the meantime, the issue needn't destabilize relations among Vietnam, China and the other claimants.

Indeed, China and Vietnam have settled their land-border dispute, and high-level political traffic between Hanoi and Beijing has never been busier. Economic and cultural exchanges are flourishing -- the Chinese state circus is coming to Hanoi next week -- and there has been a general de-escalation of tensions all around.

``China is becoming more skilled in the diplomacy game, and you see that being played out all over Southeast Asia,'' said Scobell, of the Army War College.

``Vietnam, meanwhile, is trying to balance China without antagonizing China. They're trying to play the game, too. And they're playing it very gingerly.''