Ally with Vietnam

All the pieces are in place for a U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership

Asia is rapidly becoming the locus of a new strategic competition. This is usually framed as the U.S. vs. China, but really it’s a whole bunch of smaller countries banding together to hedge against possible Chinese expansionism. The most visible manifestation of this is the Quad, a grouping composed of India, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. Though balancing China is obviously one goal, there are lots of potential issues and problems for the Quad to tackle, as this article by Dhruva Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan lays out; it’s less of an “Asian NATO” than the sort of all-purpose flexible strategic partnership that seems to be replacing the old formal, military-focused alliances like NATO. That makes sense in a world where cross-border issues (pandemics, climate change, trade, mutual defense, etc.) are complex and multifaceted.

But there’s one more important country that needs to be brought within the ambit of this nascent alliance as soon as possible: Vietnam.

The most obvious reason we should ally with Vietnam is that we share a concern about Chinese expansionism. Vietnam has territorial disputes with China over two groups of islands in the South China Sea, and relations between the two countries have soured in recent years. This, along with the memory of historical conflicts, means that Vietnamese people tend to have a fairly negative view of their neighbor to the north.

It’s important to remember that the last country to invade Vietnam wasn’t the U.S. — it was China, in 1979. Vietnam won that war (of course), inflicting grievous losses on the invaders, but Chinese troops wreaked devastation before they were ejected.

But this isn’t just an “enemy of my enemy” situation. In contrast to their attitude toward China, Vietnamese people have an overwhelmingly positive view of the U.S., despite the war that the two countries fought half a century ago. A 2015 Pew poll found that 76% of Vietnamese people had a positive view of the U.S., higher than the percentage in Japan, the UK, or Germany. And it’s very unlikely that the Trump administration brought this positive image down much.

Why does Vietnam harbor so few hard feelings toward the U.S., as compared to China? One reason is that many Vietnamese people see the war with the U.S. as primarily a civil war between the north and south, with the U.S. simply backing the wrong side. The war with China, in contrast, was a clear case of national struggle against a foreign invader — an invader that has invaded Vietnam at least 18 times over the centuries. If you had a neighboring country many times your size that invaded you 18 times, you might be a little wary of it too!

But isn’t Vietnam ideologically opposed to America due to the conflict between communism and capitalism? No. Despite being a nominally communist country, Vietnam is overwhelmingly supportive of the idea of free markets:

This might be a “grass is greener” effect to some extent, but it also probably has to do with the fact that liberalizing reforms are part of the policy package that’s helping to produce an incredible spurt of economic growth in Vietnam and lifting millions out of poverty there.

Vietnam is still a poor country with little ability to project power internationally. But it’s rapidly getting richer:

That modest but accelerating increase in wealth will translate into comprehensive national power, including military power. Vietnam is already able to resist Chinese land invasion, as 1979 demonstrated, but rising income will help it resist Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea as well. It’s also a country of around 100 million people (about three-quarters the size of Japan), and in a contest with a rival the size of China, every 100 million counts.

The logic of alliance here is inescapable, for both sides. And indeed, Vietnam and the U.S. are already edging toward a closer partnership. The U.S. has sold quite a few ships to Vietnam recently, and the two countries’ coast guards — an essential branch of the service when it comes to fending off China’s relentless maritime harassment — have been cooperating closely:

The U.S. has handed over a training center, maintenance workshop and port infrastructure to the Vietnam Coast Guard, signifying closer defense ties…

The cooperation between the coast guards of both countries has strengthened in recent years.

In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard handed over the Hamilton-class…USCGC Morgenthau cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard under their Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program…

The U.S. has also sold a total of 24 Metal Shark high-speed patrol boats and is overhauling the USCGC John Midgett, another Hamilton-class vessel, to hand it over to Vietnam...

The U.S. has assisted Vietnam in building its defense capacity, especially maritime capabilities, and supported Vietnam in sending peacekeeping personnel to South Sudan.

Referring to [Vietnam-China] disputes, [U.S. Ambassador Daniel] Kritenbrink had stressed that the U.S. always stood by its partners and allies in building an international order based on rules, and opposed " the provocative actions of China with the other countries in the region."

And U.S. aircraft carriers now visit Vietnamese ports. And Vietnam is also increasing defense cooperation with our Quad allies India and Japan.

U.S. leaders clearly realize the value of an alliance with Vietnam. They’ve invited into the “Quad Plus”, an expanded grouping that includes South Korea and New Zealand along with the Quad.

So you might ask: Why am I writing this post? If both countries are already working towards an alliance, that’s that, right? In fact, I have several important pieces of advice for the U.S. here.

First, the U.S. is going to have to consciously avoid the sort of Cold War grudge that it holds against Cuba. For Vietnam, the “American War” was just one transient stage in a multi-decade conflict; for Americans, it was both a humiliating defeat and the trigger for wrenching social change that still divides liberals and conservatives. America has a bad habit of shunning countries that burned its fingers during Cold War 1, as with the ongoing and ridiculous Cuba embargo. For Vietnam, allying with America is merely a practical matter; for America, it will involve a swallowing of national pride in the service of the national interest.

Bitterness over the war might be expressed via calls to shun Vietnam over its human rights record. This sort of shunning is a relic of the 1990s, when U.S. exclusion from the community of nations really could turn a country into an impoverished pariah. In the modern day, with the rise of China, the U.S. has no such power; countries shunned by America can merely turn to its rival. That would be a bitter pill for Vietnam, but if knuckling under to China is its only chance to continue reducing poverty, Vietnam’s leaders might choose it.

Instead, the U.S. has to give Vietnam an alternative way to get rich. We can’t bootstrap Vietnam (or any country) to development by ourselves, but we can open our markets to their exports, and we can quietly look the other way when they hold down the value of their currency. That will at least give Vietnam the chance to execute the kind of export-led development strategy that worked so well for South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

And what about human rights? It’s true that Vietnam’s regime is still very repressive. But that was also true of South Korea and Taiwan when we allied with those countries during Cold War 1. And each of those countries eventually became free and democratic — even more so than the U.S., at this point. Their American alliances probably helped with that transition — since they were dependent on the U.S. for protection against external enemies, the dictators of South Korea and Taiwan couldn’t be too murderous or repressive. This stands in stark contrast with China, which brutally crushed its democracy movement without sparing much thought for what the U.S. disapproved of.

If we have a choice between pushing Vietnam to be like China or enticing it to be like South Korea, why wouldn’t we choose the latter? A Vietnam alliance isn’t just a way to balance China — it’s a way to help Vietnam find its way to a better future, both economically and politically. And a damn better way than what we tried the first time.

So the U.S. should push ahead with a Vietnam partnership at full speed. That includes as much military cooperation as possible, but it also includes economic integration and social integration too. American voices who call for shunning Vietnam over its human rights record or protecting our markets from Vietnamese competition should simply be ignored. This is too important.