- - Monday, June 8, 2020

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Looking up from a traditional Vietnamese wood fishing boat onto a naval frigate would be like a pedestrian staring upward at a five-story windowless building. So it’s easy to see how Vietnamese fishing vessels can be swamped or overrun by Chinese warships that intrude into Vietnam’s territorial waters almost daily.

China says that the rickety wooden vessels Hanoi uses to assert claims over key waterways harass its warships patrolling the South China Sea, which blends indistinguishably with the waters of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, in Beijing’s view. But Vietnam rarely publicizes its maritime dispute with China for fear that the admission of constant naval incursions into its waters would compromise its sovereignty or lead to a crisis threatening its very existence. 

China’s current power grab in Hong Kong that virtually erases the ex-British colony’s self-governing status scares many Southeast Asian countries and nowhere are fears more palpable than in Vietnam, where there is genuine concern that they could be the next target of a hostile takeover. The naval encroachments that last year led to China’s partial occupation of the Spratly Islands long claimed by Vietnam and other Asian nations might just be the start of intensified Chinese pressures challenging the independence of its seemingly vulnerable southern neighbor.

Vietnam has recently modernized its navy with the acquisition of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia and a dozen Metal Shark fast patrol boats supplied by the U.S. Navy, which has held joint exercises with the Vietnamese maritime defense forces. But the submarines lack the air scrubbing systems for prolonged submersion and the budding surface fleet even with missiles and electronic systems fitted by India hardly poses a deterrent to China’s navy of 716 warships, possibly the world’s largest.

Other arms of mass destruction that China could use against Vietnam are so low-tech that they are often overlooked. 

China could shut off Vietnam’s water supply by simply damming the Mekong River or cut off main sources of food to Vietnam`s 96 million people. China also exercises growing financial leverage through tourism, and a system of soft loans by which China’s ICBC bank provides 100% financing to any business activity in which the main beneficial owner is a Chinese government linked company.

It may be difficult to know which companies in China are government-linked. And all but impossible for an outsider to know who pulls the strings of businesses operating in Vietnam. But ICBC knows, and it doesn’t need a large or sophisticated credit department to assist them. Evidence of this is how ICBC does not have particularly large offices in Hanoi even as the bank is an open hydrant to China-linked local businesses that are becoming vital to Vietnam’s economy.

China could overrun Vietnam militarily in days and smother it economically in weeks. There are factors, however, that may give Beijing cause for pause before a takeover bid that could lead to war. Hanoi’s capacity to mobilize the population was recently demonstrated by its highly effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which did not kill a single Vietnamese.

Hanoi’s military proved masters at guerrilla warfare in last century’s 10-year struggle against the U.S. — after similarly vanquishing the French. Despite its Communist Party rule, Vietnam harbors a historical hostility toward China, which it beat in a 1974 border war. 

But China has a strong appetite for Vietnam’s mineral resources in its northern provinces, and for its the natural deepwater port at Ha Long located less than 200 miles from the Chinese border. A situation could develop in which China reinforces its military presence in the Spratly Islands turning the contested area into a base sufficient to control the entire South China Sea and adjacent waters, as it’s done with a string of atolls and artificial islands in the region.

Regardless of whether China’s moves on the Spratlys are the end objective, or the  preparation of an enveloping strategy that could involve a Crimea-style takeover of Ha Long, Vietnam and the rest of the world are hard put to counter it.   

U.S. Army War College asymmetrical warfare specialist Evan Ellis says that, while China may appear emboldened in its pursuit of global expansion as Western and Third World economies reel from the effects of the coronavirus, growing international suspicion of China as the breeding ground of the deadly pandemic could paradoxically generate heightened resistance to its influence. 

Australia’s former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, wrote in a recent article about the possibility of “proxy wars” developing between China and the U.S. in third countries as the rival superpowers vie to maintain international influence in a more chaotic post-COVID-19 environment. A likely setting for such a scenario is Vietnam and the islands and waterways it claims.

The military-to-military relationship between Hanoi and Washington has long outpaced the diplomatic relationship. Washington has included Vietnam in theatre maneuvers with the Australian navy, funded the acquisition of Vietnamese patrol boats and even sent an aircraft carrier on a port call to Danang last March.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, by contrast, has been housed for 25 years in a small cramped “temporary” building described by former Ambassador Pete Petersen as a “pig wearing lipstick.” Hanoi has appeared unwilling to give the United States suitable land for a new embassy or realistic proposals for a permanent basing arrangement for the U.S. fleet. It appears that Vietnam is less ready than Washington for real strategic cooperation. 

Some in the U.S. and in Vietnam argue that Vietnam would gain much-needed protection while the U.S. would acquire strategic real estate that it desperately lacks in Southeast Asia. But there are others who sagely ask whether the U.S. would go to war to protect Vietnam in case the Chinese confrontation intensifies. Prevalent doubts that the U.S. would intervene forcefully explains why Vietnam needs to continue to appease China.

No doubt that it would be difficult to turn the friendly trading relationship between Vietnam and the United States into a strategic partnership, yet this needs to happen for their mutual security. Old scars would have to be forgotten as former battlefield adversaries became allies. The Trump administration would need to detour from its policy of disengaging overseas while Vietnam would have to re-adapt its policy of non-aligned neutrality and alter a diplomacy based on playing one side against another.

But in the end, a country that now appears as the next target for Chinese expansionism could be turned into a bulwark against Beijing’s global designs and an ally that the United States much needs in Asia’s troubled waters.

• Anthony D. Salzman co-founded the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi and the Vietnam Business Forum, and was one of the first trustees of the United Nations International School in Hanoi.

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