Old enemies, new friends
Joe Biden’s ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Vietnam is about blocking the rise of China, writes Eddie Ford. It will mean more visits from the Pacific fleet, more trade and new weapons
As this paper has consistently argued, the dominant geopolitical reality is US imperialism’s struggle with China. Meaning, ultimately, that the main goal of the US it is not really defending plucky little Taiwan, getting rid of Putin from the Kremlin, or even a Ukrainian military victory - though that would obviously be viewed as a bonus. Rather, it is about defeating the strategic challenge that China represents to US global hegemony. That comes above everything.
That is behind the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, the courtship of India and the signing of Aukus - the strategic partnership between the US, UK and Australia, initially to build a new class of nuclear-powered submarines. Now we have the Joe Biden visit to Vietnam on September 10, the fourth US president to come to the country after relations were normalised in 1995. The White House said the president - after going to India for the G20 summit - will meet with Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of Communist Party, and other top Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi before travelling to Alaska to commemorate the anniversary of September 11. This follows on from earlier visits this year by Antony Blinken, the secretary of state - weeks after the 50th anniversary of America’s humiliating defeat - and treasury secretary Janet Yellen. A serious charm offensive, albeit from charmless people.
What Biden will agree in Vietnam is a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ - an upgrade that would represent a significant diplomatic-political milestone in the relationship between Hanoi and Washington. Thus far Hanoi has only agreed such a partnership with four other powers - China, South Korea, India and Russia. What that will mean in terms of the US is not only more frequent trips from the US fleet, including aircraft carriers based in the Pacific, but also more economic deals. In the words of the official Vietnamese statement, the new partnership “will develop bilateral relationship in a sustainable, substantive and long-term manner, contributing to peace, stability and cooperation in the region and in the world”.
The US is one of Vietnam’s biggest trading partners. Last year, Hanoi exported $109 billion worth of goods to America. In a widely commented upon phenomenon, a lot of companies that supply US markets are shifting from China to Vietnam - the most obvious example being the iPhone. That is being done partially for economic reasons, as wages paid in Vietnam are considerably less than in China, but also with a clear government steer from Washington - we want companies to be less dependent on China and to look around for other supply lines (‘diversification’).
But, on top of that, Joe Biden will agree some sort of opening for the US to sell arms to Vietnam. The country’s main supplier of arms for some considerable time has been Russia (before that it was the Soviet Union, of course). But from now on it will be a more mixed array of weapons. We are not talking on the level of Kalashnikovs or artillery shells - more like fighter aircraft, warships and presumably electronic warfare, etc.
Why is the US doing all this? As mentioned earlier, it is about blocking China’s rise as a potential rival hegemon. Now, if you take it from a Vietnamese point of view, Joe Biden might represent the old enemy that they defeated way back in the mid-1970s. But you should also consider that, while Vietnam and China have a “comrade and friendship bond” - to use the official description - there has also been armed warfare between the two countries.
Naturally, the background to the conflict was long and complex. Very briefly, following worsening relations between the Soviet Union and China as a result of the Sino-Soviet split of 1956-66, as many as 1.5 million Chinese troops were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border in preparation for a full-scale war against the Soviets. Vietnam then antagonised China when it increased its alignment with the USSR by joining the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in 1978 and - perhaps even worse - signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union, under which Moscow pledged to aid Vietnam if attacked. In January 1979, the new paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, visited the US for the first time and told Jimmy Carter: “The child is getting naughty - it is time he got spanked”. It seems, though the exact details are still a bit murky, that Deng sought an endorsement from the US in order to deter the Soviet Union from intervening when and if China launched an attack against Vietnam. He informed the US president that China could not accept Vietnam’s “wild ambitions” and was prepared to “teach it a lesson”. According to US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter reserved judgment - an action which Chinese diplomats interpreted as tacit approval.
When Vietnam intervened in Kampuchea/Cambodia in 1978 to overthrow the murderous Pol Pot regime, China as punishment attacked the north of the country a few months later - citing support for its Khmer Rouge ally, in addition to the mistreatment of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands, which were claimed by China. In order to prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam’s behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the Soviet Union - putting all of its troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, setting up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuating an estimated 300,000 civilians.
During the conflict, China and Vietnam each lost thousands of troops and it cost Beijing 3.45 billion yuan - screwing up its 1979-80 economic plan. We will probably never know the exact number of casualties - a figure which is disputed. Assessments of the strategic consequences of the war are disputed too. Was China’s attack on Vietnam a political-strategic failure that left it with a bloody nose, as many think? Either way, China strengthened its relations with the ASEAN countries - particularly Thailand and Singapore - due to their perceived fear of “Vietnamese aggression” (read domestic insurgency). Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, said that the Chinese action “changed the history of east Asia” - in the right way, as far as he was concerned. The odious Henry Kissinger reached similar conclusions. He later wrote that China “succeeded in exposing the limits of ... [Soviet] strategic reach” and speculated that the desire to “compensate for their ineffectuality” contributed to the USSR decision to intervene in Afghanistan a year later.1 Maybe yes, maybe no.
Nonetheless the message was clear, and needs to be stressed - that China acted in conjunction with the US in attacking Vietnam. America today, of course, does not want to be associated in any way with Pol Pot’s crazy reign of terror, but the fact of the matter is that the US backed the Khmer Rouge - who were responsible for the deaths of around 1.5 to 2 million of their fellow countrymen - as they continued to fight back from their remote jungle bases in Cambodia. It was China and the US that supported them logistically and diplomatically, as did the UK - something that investigative journalist John Pilger exposed in some detail.2
In Vietnam, the war with China is a recent memory. But we also have the ongoing clashes in the South China Sea between the Chinese navy and Vietnamese fishing boats, hardly a comradely fight - with the Vietnamese often having their fishing tackle confiscated. There is also the harassment and blocking of Vietnamese exploration, when it comes to underwater oil and gas reserves.
Indeed, the US-Vietnam agreement - assuming it happens - coincides with distinctly escalating tension between Hanoi and Beijing over long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Vietnam - along with neighbours like the Philippines and Malaysia - has long opposed Beijing’s claim of authority over huge swathes of the South China Sea that extend 1,200 miles from China’s coastline.
Showing the sensitivities involved, Hanoi last month banned the blockbuster Barbie movie due to a scene featuring Margot Robbie that appeared to reference the line Beijing says marks its territorial waters - claiming it has “exercised jurisdiction” over this area “for thousands of years”.3 In response Warner Bros said “the map in Barbie Land is a whimsical, child-like crayon drawing ... the doodles depict Barbie’s make-believe journey from Barbie Land to the real world”, and was “not intended to make any type of statement”. We believe you. Meanwhile, recent satellite imagery appears to indicate that China is building an airfield on a little island that Hanoi says is Vietnamese territory.
Despite China and Vietnam having very similar regimes and increasingly similar economies, while there is still the rhetoric of ‘comradeship’, the two countries seem set on a course for conflict. Of course, Vietnam is not about to join the Americans in Aukus or anything like that. But there is no doubt that, in the event of a clash between China and the US, the chances are that Vietnam would not intervene on China’s side - it would be quite content to take a neutral position between the forces of imperialism and the forces of ‘socialism’. What that shows about the nature of the regime in Hanoi is another question.
Now, where that would lead organisations like the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain is intriguing. The CPB has clearly prostituted itself to Beijing politically, but at the same time talks about its fraternal relationships with the Communist Party of Vietnam. How you square that circle is impossible to guess, but that is where nationalist politics take you.
H Kissinger On China New York 2012, pp304-05.↩︎