US-Chinese rivalry looms over Hillary Clinton’s visit to Vietnam

[The two articles that follow (promoting American interests) paint a detailed picture of the growing rivalry in Southeast Asia between US imperialism and China, which has emerged as an imperialist power in its own right.  While Vietnam like China is a thoroughly capitalist country with a one-party state that masquerades as “communist”, and has been propped up by billions of dollars in foreign investment in all areas of its economy, it is worried about its big northern neighbor.  Now the Vietnamese government is being courted aggressively by the US in order to counter China’s growing economic and military power. This will be a bitter experience for many Vietnamese who experienced the US war that killed upwards of 2 million soldiers and civilians and ravaged their country from 1965-75.  A US-Vietnam alliance may sail into some rough waters in the years ahead.-ed]

US Secretary of State Clinton appearing in Hanoi with Vietnamese general

 

China’s rise prompts Vietnam to strengthen ties to other nations

Washington Post, October 30, 2010

HANOI – Three weeks ago, an exhibition opened at the Vietnam Military History Museum. On one side of a long hall, the mementos of Vietnam’s 25 years of war against the United States and France – letters of surrender, quotations from Ho Chi Minh, hand grenades and AK-47 rifles – lined the walls. Nothing new there.

But on the other side, the History Museum was actually making history. Along those walls hung daggers, paintings and quotations from Vietnam’s struggle with another rival: imperial China.  Battles dating to 1077, 1258 and the 14th and 18th centuries were featured in intricate detail.

Putting China on a par with “Western aggressors” marks a psychological breakthrough for Vietnam’s military and is troubling news for Beijing. For years, China has tried to forge a special relationship with Vietnam’s Communist government. But China’s rise – and its increasingly aggressive posture toward Vietnam – has alarmed the leadership of this country of 90 million, prompting it to look differently at its neighbor.

Beijing risks losing its status here of a fraternal Communist partner and being relegated to its longtime place as the empire on Vietnam’s northern border that has shaped and bedeviled this country for centuries. That change of perception has led Vietnam to embark on an extraordinary undertaking to befriend the world as a hedge against China. And prominent among its new intimates is the United States, which is equally eager for partners to help it cope with Beijing.

“It is always good to have a new friend,” mused Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh in an interview. “It is even better when that friend used to be our foe.”

The budding U.S.-Vietnamese friendship was on display Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here for her second visit in four months. Just two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates was here. In August, the Defense Department held its first security dialogue with its counterpart in Hanoi. Three U.S. naval vessels have visited Vietnam in the past year. More than 30 Vietnamese officers are studying at U.S. military academies.

“The U.S. fought a war in Vietnam to check China’s rise,” said one former senior Vietnamese official who was not authorized by the government to speak to a reporter. “Now it’s pursuing friendly relations with Vietnam . . . to check China’s rise.”

Vietnam and the United States are hammering out an agreement that would give Vietnam access to American nuclear energy technology. That, Vietnamese officials say, could help Hanoi end its dependence on China for electricity.  Meanwhile, Vietnamese defense officials say they are eager to buy U.S. military technology, including sonar equipment to track Chinese submarines. Hanoi is also involved in talks to obtain spare parts for its arsenal of U.S.-made UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, an icon of the Vietnam War. And defying Chinese pressure, three American oil companies are carrying out offshore exploration in Vietnam’s waters.

Common causes

Clinton’s two-day visit marks the first time the United States will have participated in the East Asian Summit – an annual forum of the region’s major countries. In fact, Vietnam ushered the United States into the group.

“The Vietnamese are very enthusiastic about deepening their partnership with us,” Clinton said last week during a conversation with the historian Michael Beschloss. “Here’s a war where tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese were killed and maimed and injured and whose impact was felt so profoundly in our country and in Vietnam. And yet the Vietnamese and the Americans now are doing business together, are doing diplomacy together, are making common cause in some of the regional-global issues that we are both concerned with.”

“We should leave the war to the writers,” said Bao Ninh, the author of a haunting novel about the conflict titled “The Sorrow of War.” Besides, added Ninh, who served as a private during the war, the United States is wildly popular here. “Even my generation likes the Americans more. If you polled the army, they’d still vote for the U.S.”

One common cause the two countries have found is ensuring that China does not dominate the South China Sea. Beijing claims the whole 1 million-square-mile waterway including vast swaths of empty ocean 1,000 miles from China’s southernmost tip, and has dispatched the world’s largest maritime security vessel to the region to harass Vietnamese fishermen and oil exploration teams. In July, after consultation with Vietnam, Clinton broached the issue at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Hanoi, rejecting China’s claims to the ownership of open ocean and calling for multilateral talks. Eleven other countries followed the United States’ lead. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, left the meeting in apparent shock, returning only to remind the other countries there that they are small and China is big.

Another common cause will be highlighted Saturday when Clinton leads a meeting of the U.S.-inspired Lower Mekong Initiative, which seeks, in part, to push Beijing to limit the number of dams it builds as the Mekong River flows south through China. Last week, the Mekong was at its lowest level in recorded history and analysts in Vietnam blamed China’s dams, irrigation and hydroelectric projects for the drop.

Branching out

Vietnam’s charm offensive is not limited to the United States. Hanoi has strengthened its ties to its old patron, Moscow and last year contracted to buy six Kilo-class submarines. Another Chinese rival, India is in talks to help Vietnam upgrade its fleet of Mig-21 fighters. France, Vietnam’s former colonial master, is considering selling warships to Hanoi. Vietnam has also reached out to Asian powers, such as South Korea and Japan, dropping visa requirements for their citizens five years ago.

“The Vietnamese are trying to find a way of telling the Chinese, ‘We’ve got powerful friends,’ ” said Nayan Chanda, the author of “Brother Enemy,” the classic study of Vietnam’s relations with China. “But it’s a very delicate game.”

Indeed, China’s influence in Vietnam remains powerful. Vietnam’s economic reforms – known as doi moi – were inspired by China, and its security services have learned a lot from their Chinese counterparts about how to maintain one-party rule. As such, Hanoi is careful not to disturb Beijing, or not too much. At the Military Museum, for example, one war gets no treatment at all – the bloody border conflict Vietnam fought with China in 1979.

Vietnam’s censors also routinely ban anti-Chinese news reports. On Thursday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry ordered a leading online newspaper, Vietnamnet, to pull an article predicting that Southeast Asian nations would take a tough stance against China over maritime disputes and other issues. Other stories, however, do get through, such as reports this week of a petition campaign led by Nguyen Thi Binh, Vietnam’s former vice president and the Viet Cong’s representative at the Paris peace talks, against a massive Chinese-invested bauxite mine in Vietnam’s central highlands.

“We have been next to China for 4,000 years. We cannot just up and move,” said Pham Chi Lan, a senior economist involved in the petition, which has drawn 3,000 signatures. “In order to survive, however, we need friends.”

China’s Backyard, the US’ Military Playground–Why the ascendant Chinese military gets little love in Southeast Asia.

Global Post, October 29, 2010

BANGKOK, Thailand — Think America is skittish over China’s rising power? Consider the view from Southeast Asia, witness to centuries of Chinese intervention, weapons trafficking and, in Vietnam, outright invasion.

Though China’s navy has by some estimates outgrown America’s [an incorrect assertion-ed], its military sway over Southeast Asia remains weak. Its weapons sales in the region, a marker of influence, are relatively meager. Its joint military drills with local allies — only two this year — are sporadic and small.

Chinese marines arrived in Thailand this week to join a joint military drill with Thai troops, marking the first time Chinese marines went abroad to conduct joint exercises with foreign forces. Meanwhile, the U.S. military holds about 300 annual exercises in the Pacific region, including the world’s largest war games in Thailand.

Though buoyed by China’s rising economy, Southeast Asia is rebuffing China’s attempts to pull the region under its defense umbrella. “They just can’t ramp it up, mostly because of Southeast Asian resistance,” said Ian Storey, who analyzes China’s military at the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies. “That sort of relationship with China still makes this region very anxious.”

As Hillary Clinton tours the region to shore up American support, here’s a look at U.S. courtship — and Chinese counter-courtship — in four strategically crucial Southeast Asian countries.

THAILAND: Perhaps America’s truest Asian military ally, Thailand plays host to the world’s largest multinational war games: “Cobra Gold.” Each year, more than 11,500 troops from the U.S., Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore stage beach assaults, rescue missions and more. The Chinese are invited too — but only to watch.

In recent years, China has pursued its own war games with Thailand. The People’s Liberation Army even suggested all-expenses-paid “Cobra Gold”-style exercises in 2010. Instead, Thailand has accepted only small-scale games like “Blue Assault,” 20 days of Marine Corps drills now ongoing along Thailand’s coast.

China has repeatedly appealed to Thailand’s generals, namely after a 2006 military coup that temporarily cut off U.S. funding. (China offered $49 million in military credits that year, more than twice the amount offered by the U.S.) But while their relationship is growing, Thailand still keeps the Chinese at arm’s length. Full-on war games risk angering the U.S., fearful the Chinese will learn American invasion tactics from U.S.-trained Thai troops.

MYANMAR: Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country securely under China’s military sway. U.S. defense companies are strictly forbidden from exporting arms to Myanmar, run by a military that has tortured and killed ethnic tribes for more than 60 years. Myanmar has instead turned to China for more than $164 million worth of weapons and equipment in the last 10 years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

This investment, accounting for 63 percent of China’s total arms sales to Southeast Asia from 2000-2008, has transformed Myanmar’s army from a ragtag counter-insurgency outfit into a capable fighting force.

What the U.S. fears most, however, is Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions. A Myanmar army defector, Maj. Sai Thein Win, has supplied ample evidence to prove the isolated backwater has a nuclear weapons program, said Robert Kelley, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Still, the program is rudimentary, he said. “The workmanship is extremely poor,” he said this week in Bangkok. “I can buy many of these components from the hardware store … and I think I can build them just as well.”

China has said little about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions. Clinton, however, is expected to reiterate this week her fears that Myanmar’s nuclear program remains a threat — particularly if it’s aided by North Korea.

VIETNAM: Jaded by invasions and proxy wars, Vietnam’s defense policy is distilled into three ultimatums: No military alliances, no foreign bases and no relying on a third-party country to attack its enemies. In August, a Vietnamese deputy defense attache in Beijing, Chu Ngoc Nho, told the China Daily that “We are not going to be military allies with the U.S. or any other country.”

But Vietnamese anxiety over China’s rise — shared by the U.S. — is encouraging an intimacy that would have been unthinkable decades ago. They’re conducting small naval exercises in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and China are tangled in territorial disputes. U.S. warships have also docked to welcome aboard senior Vietnamese generals. A lifted ban on all but “lethal-end” arms has even helped Vietnam repair old weapons seized after the U.S. retreat in 1975.

But perhaps the strongest affront to China is America’s proposal to share nuclear technology with Vietnam, ostensibly to power its booming industries. U.S. officials are openly considering an agreement that would allow Vietnam to enrich its own uranium, a stepping stone towards assembling nuclear weapons.

Vietnam’s potential to produce a nuclear bomb — or even a nuclear-powered submarine — has been overstated, Storey said. “In fact, it’s almost unthinkable,” he said. The Vietnamese will also be mindful not to grow too close to its former enemy. “They’ve got to play a very careful game with China,” Storey said. “They can’t seem to be antagonizing them, because the Chinese can make life very difficult for them.”

INDONESIA: According to the U.S. Defense Department, up to 80 percent of China’s fuel imports pass through the so-called naval “choke points” around Indonesia. But despite China’s huge need for stability along this island chain, they have largely failed to influence the Indonesian forces tasked with securing it.

More than most Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia has sought China’s military help, namely in acquiring the technology to mass produce its own weapons and equipment.  But Chinese reluctance to share its secrets, Storey said, has frayed the relationship.

Previously, while under U.S. arms embargoes for human rights abuses, Indonesia was heavily courted by China’s defense industry. But after buying $11 million worth of anti-ship missiles in 2005, the Indonesians have shown little interest in buying more Chinese advanced weaponry, known to be less reliable than Russian, European and U.S. weapons.

“The Chinese attempted to drive a wedge between Indonesia and the U.S.,” Storey said. “But this relationship was repaired fairly quickly.”

Since 2006, the U.S. has poured $47 million into Indonesia’s anti-piracy and other military programs, including a network of radars through its precarious shipping lanes. Amidst criticism this year, the U.S. lifted a ban on aiding Kopassus, Indonesia’s elite commando unit accused of torture and other human rights abuses.

“Human rights are important domestically [in the U.S.], but considering China, they have to beef up their Southeast Asia presence,” Storey said. “With the Indonesian military reforming itself, and the fact that they’re a democracy, the U.S. has to hope these abuses won’t happen again.”

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