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SANDERS: Vietnam is not, repeat not, Asia’s new Mighty Mouse

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The setting was hardly one conducive to grand geopolitical discussion.

There was tea — but no crumpets — in my tiny, less-than-fashionable Hudson Street West Village studio. It was 1951. I had just been cashiered as a scriptwriter for Voice of America, in part for ferociously advocating Vietnam's independence. My guest — whom I was just meeting — was a refugee living off the charity of the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers. I had sought him out, told by various Vietnamese friends his resume was more than a match for Ho Chi Minh's propaganda-acquired reputation.

That afternoon, the future president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, lectured me on, among other things, the tangled relationship between Vietnam and China. Diem argued that only when there was an intervening third force would independence be possible from a reunified, powerful China.

In his long lament on why the ardent American support for the French efforts in his country would fail, Diem pointed particularly to the new threat of Chinese communism. It had appeared a few months earlier at Vietnam's three northern border passes. In fact, just weeks earlier, I had abandoned a year's reporting on the conflict, convinced that the stalemate between the French and the Vietminh guerrillas was sure to bring Chinese intervention. Diem endorsed my hypothesis.

Only now, decades later, with defectors having unmasked Paris' cover-up in pursuit of its commercial ambitions in China, do we know that Beijing indeed played a critical role in France's final defeat at Dien Bien Phu three years later.

As is inscribed at the U.S. National Archives Building: "What's past is prologue." Repeatedly, the Vietnamese have scored temporary victories over the Chinese. In 1979 — to take just the latest example — Beijing tried "to teach the Vietnamese a lesson" after Hanoi's communists, with approval from most of the world, invaded a Chinese ally, Cambodia, to oust the monstrous Khmer Rouge regime. China's incursion was rudely turned back.

But today's Beijing is another matter.

China is pouring billions upon billions of yuan into its military while overwhelming northern Vietnam's industries with imports and illegal workers. It also has moved down the Mekong River into neighboring Laos, determined not to repeat the logistical failure that contributed to its 1979 debacle.

Vietnam's ambiguous relations with China, despite its strong debt to Chinese culture, are reflected even in the pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow wings of the ruling Communist Party. The editor of the party newspaper was even fired recently for an "anti-Chinese" editorial.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waded into all this during the recent ASEAN summit and in bilateral talks with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi. She threw an unexpected zinger at Beijing, denouncing China's absurd claims to the South China Sea — including islets 1,800 miles from the mainland. The sea is now a pivotal world shipping route and an increasingly important source of oil and gas for energy-dependent China.

Beijing's response was instantaneous, lambasting U.S. imperialism and pressing for a bilateral resolution between China and ASEAN. That could prove a profitable line with ASEAN members, who have unsettled claims with one another. In fact, the Philippine foreign minister — Manila has signed various "agreements" with Beijing over the sea — quickly said the U.S. should butt out of the dispute.

U.S. military vessels have just made ostentatious port calls to enhance Washington-Hanoi relations. But that hasn't stopped Vietnamese officials from soliciting military hardware from Moscow.

What is being played out is Vietnamese communists' old game, pitting major powers against one another — as it did so successfully in wringing more aid from Beijing and Moscow during the war with the Americans. The same trap was sprung on Sens. John McCain and John Kerry in the 1990s when they pushed for U.S. recognition and aid — without major concessions — at a moment Hanoi was desperate for Washington ties.

But Vietnamese attempts to clone the China model for economic development have not been successful. Despite a lower-cost, eminently educable work force, Vietnam has scared off investors with levels of official corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that rival China's.

After a relative brief spurt, Hanoi's economy — hurt in part by the global recession — again has sagged, as seen by the third devaluation of the currency in nine months. The devaluations are lame attempts to boost exports and discourage a black market stoked with more than $7 billion annually in remittances from Vietnamese expatriates in North America, Australia and France — the largest source of foreign-exchange income.

Much of Asia, correctly or not, sees an Obama administration retreating step by step before growing Chinese strength. A stronger alliance with communist Vietnam, not exactly a fully reliable partner, could be a building block if Washington cares to reverse that image of retreat.

But it will not compensate for an effective American overall China strategy, a strategy that is still going begging.

Sol Sanders, a veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.

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