By Dr Subhash Kapila
The East Asia security environment in the first decade of the 21st Century has witnessed a greater flexing of strategic muscles by China buoyed by a combination of factors arising from United States exhibiting ambiguities in its strategic approaches to East Asia security. The major reasons were the United States military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan which strategically distracted it from its prime focus of China’s military rise and its implications for East Asia security.
It was not that the United States was totally oblivious to China’s end- game in strategically diminishing the United States in East Asia. An indicator towards this recognition was the United States growing recognition by the middle of this decade that its security architecture in East Asia was strategically incomplete without co-opting Vietnam as a strategic partner, if not as a strategic ally.
This trend was highlighted in this Author’s SAAG Paper entitled “Vietnam: Renewed Significance in United States Strategic Calculus” (Paper No. 1796 dated 10.5.2006).
Vietnam’s significance was recognized as far back as 1995 when President Clinton normalized United States relations with Vietnam and became the first US President to visit Vietnam after the American military withdrawal from Vietnam after years of sustained military operations.
United States-Vietnam relations thereafter followed a subdued trajectory until the middle of the present decade as both the United States and Vietnam weighed the consequences of adding firmer strategic contours to their evolving relationship. Both the United States and Vietnam seemed to have been engaged in hedging strategies in relation to China, and balancing their relations with China, till China made its strategic hand more clearer.
By 2004-2005 events in East Asia clearly indicated that China was not a responsible stakeholder in East Asia stability and was intent on carving out East Asia as an exclusive Chinese sphere of influence excluding United States from the region and forcing regional states like Vietnam, Japan and South Korea to adjust strategically and politically to its ambitions.
The United States having woken up to this reality and Vietnam having been persistently mauled militarily by China in the South China Sea disputing Vietnamese sovereignty over more than half of the islands scattered in the South China Sea, has resulted in the middle of 2010 for the United States and Vietnam to edge more closer strategically.
In a befitting finale to the process of normalization of US-Vietnam relations initiated by President Clinton it was left to his lady wife, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to articulate the underpinnings of United States intentions to add strategic contours to this relationship.
Without going overboard, what one can safely assert at this stage is that if both the United States and Vietnam invest strategic value to their emerging relationship this could emerge as a “game changer” in East Asia security environment.
With the above as the context, this Paper would like to examine the following aspects:
- Vietnam’s Pivotal Geostrategic Significance
- Vietnam and United States: The Emerging Strategic Convergences
- United States Recent Political and Strategic Signaling in Relation to Vietnam
Vietnam’s Pivotal Geostrategic Significance
Vietnam’s pivotal geostrategic importance stands amplified in my earlier Papers on the subject but still it would be pertinent to the discussion to reiterate some of the more salient aspects.
Vietnam’s pivotal geostrategic significance arises from its unique geographical location in which intersect the strategic interests of all the major powers, namely, the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India. Vietnam’s long land border with China and its much longer and elongated Littoral astride the South China Sea claimed by China as its exclusive area of influence, endow Vietnam with a geostrategic significance far outweighing any other consideration.
Vietnam shares the coastline with China in the Gulf of Tonkin in the North and lies squarely opposite and in close proximity to China’s outsized island of Hainan where China has developed a major nuclear submarines base. Thereafter the Vietnamese coastline runs in a Southerly alignment in parallel to the South China Sea for hundreds of kilometers and finally turning Westwards into the Gulf of Thailand.
With such a configuration coupled with the numerous Vietnamese islands that dot the South China Sea, Vietnam is uniquely placed to dominate the South China Sea, if it had the resources to build a sizeable Navy.
It is for this reason that China hotly contests Vietnamese sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands besides the factor that this sea is rich in oil and natural gas deposits. The other more important considerations for China are military related factors. China’s energy security over and above the pipeline grid that it is configuring all over the Asian heartland and countries like Pakistan, will still continue to rely heavily on sea-lanes from the Gulf to China traversing through the South China Sea. They would become vulnerable to a Vietnam tied up strategically to a major power like the United States.
Conversely a South China Sea firmly in uncontested hands of China would endow it with significant military coercive capabilities to strangle American allies like Japan and South Korea besides interrupting United States Navy transference of naval forces from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean Region.
In greater military effect an uncontested South China Sea under firm control of China combined with China’s hold over the East China Sea would preclude any United States military sea-borne intervention against China and aiding Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
Vietnam and United States: The Emerging Strategic Convergences
In a security environment of East Asia and more specifically the South China Sea, which is under constant threat of strategic destabilization by China, what arises obviously and with great military logic is that strategic convergences should arise between Vietnam and the United States.
In fact a strong and undeniable strategic interdependence emerges that both USA and Vietnam should seek to checkmate China, if not to contain it by a formal military security pact.
Focusing on Vietnam first, the strategic reality is that Vietnam on its own is not militarily capable of checkmating China currently, even with its valorous record of militarily defeating China in 1979. Vietnam needs a major power like the United States with its military preponderance in Asia Pacific as countervailing power against its China threat.
Russia as the traditional major power supporting Vietnam is geographically too distant from the region and nor does it have the naval might to make its presence felt in the South China Sea. Russia also has to think about its relationship with China in the global context to balance the United States. But it is likely that Russia could wink at an emerging strategic relationship between Vietnam and the United States.
Coming to the United States strategic interest in Vietnam, there is a lot that the United States can gain strategically in a close political and strategic relationship with Vietnam. It would enable the United States to have a second foothold on Asian Mainland in addition to South Korea, and this time on China’s Southern flank and thereby adding to China’s vulnerability on a second flank.
While on the Korean Peninsula, the United States has a foothold for its ground forces but they have to face a buffer state of North Korea shielding China. In the South, China does not have a buffer state to separate it from Vietnam.
Even before this stage is reached where USA and Vietnam get tied into an alliance relationship, tremendous strategic advantages accrue with even an evolving strategic relationship to the United States in relation to the security of the South China Sea and prevent its total domination by China which it is intent on doing so.
This is achievable in two ways by the United States. The first option is to position a sizeable US Navy presence in the South China Sea which has a logistic call on Vietnamese ports for sustenance. The second and most immediate course is for the United States to build up the military capabilities of the Vietnam Navy in terms of combatant assets, maritime surveillance assets and naval air surveillance assets.
Basically, the major strategic convergence of both Vietnam and the United States focuses on the threat that China poses in the South China Sea. China’s permissive complicity with the North Korean sinking of the South Korean Navy ship in the East China Sea is an indicator of events that could follow in the South China Sea.
Further there are strong economic convergences between Vietnam and USA extending from major US investments in a fast growing Vietnamese economy to oil prospecting in the South China Sea. Vietnam has already granted rights to US firms and Indian firms to which China is protesting vehemently. The United States is already the top foreign investor in Vietnam.
In the overall East Asia security configuration, any United States initiatives to establish a strategic relationship with Vietnam would find a strategic convergence of interests with traditional US allies in the region like Japan, South Korea and Australia.
United States Recent Political and Strategic Signaling in Relation to Vietnam
Politically, high level exchanges have been in operation from about 2005 onwards. From 2008 onwards a formal US-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue has been taking place annually.
At the 2010 Shangri-La Strategic Dialogue in May 2010 US Secretary of State, Gates strongly asserted that the United States viewed the South China Sea Region as an area of growing concern. Further, he asserted that the United States opposes the use of force and actions that hinder freedom of navigation and that the United States objects to any actions to intimidate US corporations or those of any other nations employed in legitimate economic activity the South China Sea.
These assertions were an obvious reference to China’s current aggressive postures in the South China Sea and also to intimidate Vietnam.
In the defence and security fields, the United States has increased IMET programs for Vietnam’s armed forces personnel and may also positively respond to Vietnamese requests for spare parts for US military hardware leftovers of the Vietnam War.
Similarly, US Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Hanoi for an ASEAN Conference followed up Gate’s assertions in equal measure indicating that at long last the United States was recognizing Vietnam’s strategic worth in East Asia security in relation to US strategic interests.
Recently in another signaling the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS ROOSEVELT called at Da Nang naval base in Vietnam for a four day call and will be followed by other US Navy ships. It needs to be recalled that the US aircraft carrier proceeded straight to Vietnam after joint exercises with the South Korean Navy as a retaliatory measure against the CHEONAN sinking incident in the East China Sea.
The US Navy and Vietnamese Navy had carried out some joint naval exercises overtly stated as anti-piracy exercises.
There are some reports that indicate that Vietnam may be inclined to lease out its Da Nang Naval Base to the United States. Vietnam would be well advised to offer Da Nang to the United Sates Navy on commercial terms if not as a naval base as it would facilitate a longer positioning of US Navy ships ‘on station’ in the South China Sea.
It has been announced that the United States is willing to provide assistance, know-how and other help required for setting up civilian nuclear power generation infrastructure in Vietnam
These may be tentative steps but they do portend greater strategic engagement between the two nations.
China’s military-muscle flexing in the East China Sea and the South China Sea has finally hastened the long awaited inevitability of a United States-Vietnam strategic relationship. Both nations stand to gain from a maturing of such a strategic relationship.
A fully matured United States strategic relationship could emerge as a “game-changer” in East Asia security environment and contribute to overall security and stability in the region besides ensuring for the United States “the freedom of the high seas” so guardedly nourished by the United States as a cardinal principle of its National Security Strategy.
In witness today is the “balance of power “jostling of the United States with China in which Vietnam is fast emerging as a significant actor in the United States strategic calculus.
This can best be projected in the words of Ed Ross who heads a US international consulting firm who states that “Balance of Power politics is a chess-game and not a tennis match.”
East Asia security with China’s greater strategic assertiveness and muscle flexing promises to be a long drawn out strategic chess-game with the balance in favor of the United States provided it dispenses with its China-hedging strategy.