Thirty-five years ago this past March, the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang was convulsed by artillery shelling, bloody street violence, and chaotic evacuations, as Communist troops approached and throngs of desperate refugees tried to escape. In August 2010, a very different Da Nang received a visit from the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain, which hosted bilateral “naval-engagement activities” to mark the 15th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations. It was the first time since the war that American and Vietnamese servicemen had participated in joint military-training exercises. “This is indicative of the increasingly closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam,” declared Rear Adm. Ron Horton, commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific.
Their emerging partnership symbolizes one of history’s great ironies. As BBC journalist Bill Hayton has noted, “There are few places in the world more pro-American than modern Vietnam.” Young Vietnamese are enamored of American culture, and the government in Hanoi, which enjoyed massive aid from China during its struggle against the U.S.-backed Saigon regime, now values American power both as a catalyst for economic development and as a check on Chinese ambitions. Shortly before the John S. McCain docked in Da Nang Harbor, U.S. and Vietnamese officials gathered aboard another American vessel, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington, cruising in the hotly contested South China Sea. Following their subsequent naval drills, America and Vietnam formally launched a high-level defense dialogue.
These actions delivered a clear message to Beijing, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum on July 23. Calling the South China Sea territorial disputes a matter of U.S. national interest, Clinton pledged that America would seek to promote a peaceful, multilateral resolution in accordance with international law. That may sound innocuous — but not to the Chinese government, which claims maritime jurisdiction over nearly the entire body of water and rejects “outside interference” in the negotiations. Right on cue, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi blasted Clinton’s comments as “virtually an attack on China.”
In fact, those comments were a necessary (and overdue) response to persistent Chinese bullying. They signified a wider effort by the Obama administration to bolster America’s security posture in East Asia. Since mid-June, the U.S. has signed a defense-framework agreement with Indonesia, announced the resumption of military cooperation with the Indonesian special forces, sponsored multinational peacekeeping exercises in Cambodia, and conducted large-scale war games with South Korea. It has also introduced new financial sanctions against the other Korea, targeting senior members of the ruling regime in Pyongyang.
All of these moves occurred against the backdrop of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, its rapid arms buildup, and its unflagging support for the North Korean dictatorship. The Pentagon’s 2010 report on Chinese defense policy, released in August, warns of a growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continuing to deploy advanced weaponry that could be used against the small island democracy. More broadly, the Pentagon report highlights the dangerous opacity of Chinese intentions: “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
That uncertainty helps explain why so many Asian governments are wary of China’s burgeoning influence in the region. Hopes that Beijing would prove a “responsible stakeholder” in global politics have been diminished by its efforts to shield North Korea from international pressure, undermine sanctions against Iran, and intimidate neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Japan. Official assurances that China’s rise will be “peaceful” conflict with surging military expenditures, the buildup opposite Taiwan, and heightened maritime tensions caused by Chinese provocations. Many foreign analysts have drawn disturbing parallels between contemporary China and Wilhelmine Germany.