Foreword by the Saker: I don’t know who “Conical Hat” really is. All I know is that he is a Vietnamese reader of the blog. And judging by his article, he is somebody with superb knowledge and understanding of Vietnam’s history and international relations. We emailed each other a couple of times and, one day, I suggested that he write up something about the geostrategic position of Vietnam. What Conical Hat sent back to me was the most detailed and most interesting analysis of Vientam I have seen in a very long time. I am immensely grateful to him.
This is the 2nd Special Report I am posting on this blog. I put the first one (about Macedonia) into the SITREP category as it pertains to current, unfolding, events. I will put today report on Vietnam into the “Guest Post” category as it is a more analytical one. However, no matter in which category they will be placed, I am hoping to continue to regularly post high-quality analytical “Special Reports” to provide our community with the kind of real expert reports which are so totally missing from the official corporate media.
Vietnam between the US, Russia and China
by “Conical Hat”
Some historical background
Simply put, Vietnam was under direct Chinese colonization for a thousand years, from 111 BCE until 939 CE. The Han (main Chinese ethnic) could never absorb and transform the Vietnamese people to become Chinese, as they did with other neighboring people, and Vietnam was never becoming a small star on the Chinese flag (composing of one big star representing the Han, and 4 small stars representing the other four principal minorities). From 939 on, China could not subjugate Vietnam for any longer period than 1407-1427 under the Ming Dynasty.
Independent Vietnam always “played by the rules” vis a vis China: accept to be a tributary to the Chinese suzerain. That modus vivendi lasted another thousand years into the 19th century when France occupied Vietnam. But for China, Vietnam was part of it and needs to be “reunited” with the “motherland”. For the last two thousand years, it is always in the Vietnamese psyche to prove that “we are NOT Chinese”. Interestingly, according to Professor Han Xiaorong, as late as 1936 Mao Zedong said to Edgar Snow that it was China’s loss of Vietnam to France that had awakened his national consciousness! (A Story of Việt Nam by Trương Bửu Lâm).
The iron clast guideline of Vietnam’s geopolitics has always been determined by the formula established since the first dynasty of the independent Vietnam in 939: “Nam tiến, Bắc hòa” meaning “advance to the South, make peace with the North”. From a territory comprising present north Vietnam, they expended southward to annex Champa, and half of Cambodia, to form present day Vietnam, only to be stopped by the French colonization.
In 1858 the French started to attack Vietnam, and in 1862 the Vietnamese court signed the treaty recognizing French colonization. French Indochina comprised of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Eventually Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, declared independence on September 2, 1945 following Japan’s capitulation ending WWII in Asia.
Then started immediately the Resistance War (the French call it the Indochinese War) against the French, followed by the partition of Vietnam (into communist North and anti-communist South) and the American War (the Americans call it the Vietnam War) that ended 40 years ago on April 30, 1975 with victory of the North over the South.
1945-1975: 30 years of war
During WWII, the Japanese army occupied vast areas of Asia, including Vietnam and part of China. The French Vichy regime who already surrendered to Germany, accepted the presence and rule of the Japanese imperial army in Indochina. For the Vietnamese people, it was “one neck caught in 2 collars”. The Japanese occupation was particularly rude (as it was elsewhere in Asia). For many scholars that occupation was responsible for the big famine in north Vietnam in 1945 that claimed 2 million lives. On March 9, 1945 the Japanese imprisoned all French troops in Indochina (The Japanese Coup) and put the whole area under their sole rule.
After Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending WWII in the Pacific, communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence of Vietnam on Sep 2, 1945. At that time, Ho Chi Minh was supported by Stalin and was officer of the Komintern. (It was ironic that Ho started his quest for independence by approaching US President Wilson at the Versailles Conference ending WWI, naively thinking the US would support the right to self determination for all nations as they proclaimed, only to be said no). Bao Dai, the nominal Vietnamese Emperor abdicated and accepted the post of Adviser in Ho Chi Minh’s government, and famously declared “I’d rather be a simple citizen of an independent Vietnam than the emperor of a colonized country” (note that although the French ruled Indochina, they put nominal “kings” and “emperor” in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). Not long after, he left the communist government and went to China then Hong Kong (British territory).
The Allies decided to divide French Indochina into two zones north and south of the 16th parallel. Chinese troops (nationalist Chiang Kai-shek) were to disarm and repatriate the Japanese soldiers northern of 16th parallel and the British troops to do the same southern of 16th parallel. However, the Brits embarked French troops alongside to reconquer Cochinchina (French name for south Vietnam). The Chinese sent more than 200,000 troops into Vietnam north of 16th parallel. Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French to come to north Vietnam to replace the Chinese (that formula also suited French and Chinese in their bargain related to Chinese territory occupied by French). The Vietnamese communist leader was reported as famously saying: “I’d rather smell French shit for a little while, than eat Chinese shit forever”. French and Vietnamese started negotiations on the future of Vietnam. They could not agree on a satisfactory solution, and in December 1946 the Viet-Minh (Vietnamese resistance movement led by the Communist Party) officially launched the National Resistance against the French, starting what the French call the Indochinese War. Not all Vietnamese accepted the communist rule. There were many non-communist movements that were fighting against the French colonial power. However, their degree of organization, manpower, and determination was pale comparing to the communists’. The French, in their effort to fight against the Viet-Minh, tried to find/create local allies. They called in Bao Dai, the emperor who abdicated to the Viet-Minh in 1945, to become head of the State of Vietnam, with promises of future independence. The non-communist movements are to be gathered behind Bao Dai and the State of Vietnam to fight against the communists. That was the “Bao Dai solution”. In the meantime, Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists who were forced to retreat to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. Support from (communist) China for the Viet-Minh escalated tremendously, from weapons to advisors. Eventually the French were defeated at the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, by the Viet-Minh under general Vo Nguyen Giap. The Geneva Agreement was signed in July 1954 which partitioned Vietnam into communist North (The Democratic Republic of Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh as Head) and anti-communist South (The State of Vietnam with Bao Dai as Head. He was eventually dethroned in 1955 and South Vietnam became the Republic of Vietnam), with the 17th parallel as demarcation. The partition was supposed to be temporary for two years until general elections be held in 1956. South Vietnam never agreed to hold the general elections, arguing that the Geneva Agreement was signed by the French and the Viet-Minh, and not by the State of Vietnam. It was a spin narrative, because South Vietnam benefited from that same agreement and inherited the territory south of the 17th parallel. It also applied the agreement in organizing (with US help and command) the migration of 1 million people from North to South, fleeing the communist regime; and also accepted the repatriation of communist partisans from South to North also according to the Agreement.
The French left Vietnam entirely. The Americans filled the void. The American War as the North Vietnamese call it, or Vietnam War as the Americans call it, started immediately. We are right in the Cold War. South Vietnam was presented as the “vanguard of the Free World” fighting against communism. For South Vietnam, it was a self-defense war against the aggression from the North that violated international rules by attacking a sovereign country (the South); and the sovereign country has all the rights to ally itself with another sovereign country (the US) in its self-defense. For the North, it was simply the continuation of the war for independence, with the Americans replacing the French, as they (and their South Vietnamese allies) violated the Geneva Agreement by refusing the general elections; thus it was a “Liberation” war, to finish up what was left in 1954. For world geopolitics, the war in Vietnam was symbol of the Cold war, between the “Communist World” and the “Free World”.
The relationship between North Vietnam (NVN) and the USSR and China are not as straightforward as that of South Vietnam (SVN) and the US. As revealing anecdotes, one can refer to the CIA’s estimate that general elections to be held in 1956 (per Geneva Agreement) would give the communists big victory; the US then “advised” SVN not to accept to hold elections. On the NVN side, immediately after the signature of the Geneva Agreement, Chinese Premier Chu En Lai offered a friendly hand to SVN, proposing recognition of the two Vietnams, to the big disappointment of NVN. SVN eventually declined the offer, under US “advice”.
China never wanted a strong Vietnam on her southern flank, and found a divided Vietnam as a perfect solution from her viewpoint, as we will see the Chinese attitude during the war and after the victory of NVN over SVN.
The USSR always supported the communist regime in NVN. As we said, Vietnam was the hot spot of the Cold War. NVN masterly navigated that symbolic situation to court favor of the two competing entities at the top of the communist world: the USSR and China. Both supported NVN, or may I say both have to support NVN (leadership obliges).
The US engaged more than 500,000 ground troops in SVN. The war escalated. NVN infiltrated troops and war material to the South, via a complicated network of trails through rain forests and mountains in Laos and SVN alongside the border. Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia (officially neutral) let NVN troops use his country as a sanctuary to attack SVN. The first major communist offensive was in Jan 1968 (the Tet offensive) where 70,000 communist troops launched a coordinated attack on more than 100 cities and towns in SVN. They were eventually pushed back by SVN and US troops. Militarily, it was a defeat for the communists who lost 100,000 troops and agents altogether. But politically it was a big victory for NVN. The last point is very important, because NVN leadership always considered the war in Vietnam is to be “won in Paris and Washington” (After the war, General Võ Nguyên Giáp had a talk with one of his US counterparts who said “’hey, we won every tactical engagement against you” and Giáp replied “it’s also irrelevant”)
The fact that the Vietcongs (name calling the vietnamese communist) are able to coordinate a general offensive on the whole SVN, and especially they could attack and get inside the US Embassy in Saigon (capital of SVN) and hold in for hours, already by itself attains the objective. The $ 1.2 billion US Embassy was just built a few months early and presented as an invincible fortress. All of that could be seen almost live on TV around the world. That psychological effect turned the tide in the public opinion and eventually forced Jonhson to seek negotiations that ended 5 years later in Jan 1973 with the Paris Peace Agreement. It was the longest peace negotiation in world history.
Let’s go back to some important points to understand the complexity of the situation as well as the complex relationship between Hanoi (capital of NVN) and Beijing. As stated earlier, Cambodia was used as a sanctuary to attack SVN. Suffice to look at the map to see that SVN cannot be defended as long as Cambodia is in hostile hands. In 1969 Nixon secretly bombarded Cambodia. In 1970 general Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk and established the pro american Republic of Kampuchea. The Cambodian communists started a resistance and “liberation” war under Khmer Rouge (Khmer means Cambodian, Rouge is the French word for Red) leader Pol Pot, supported by China. In Feb 1972, Nixon arrived in China for an official trip. It was a big geopolitical coup that worried NVN as much. According to NVN intelligence, Kissinger would assure (premier) Chu En Lai that the US would stay neutral in case China reclaims the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (The Vietnamese call it the East Sea) hold by SVN at that time. One month later, NVN launched the Easter Offensive that lasted from March to October 1972. That was the first ever full scale conventional offensive with hundreds thousands troops crossing the demarcation line, equipped with modern Soviet military hardware. The move had many motives: it was a signal to Beijing that Hanoi could always count on Moscow for military support, and whatever the Chinese might agree with the Americans, NVN pursued its own interest. It also intended to test Nixon’s “vietnamization” of the war (giving SVN troops more means and responsibility to conduct the war, in the aim to reduce US exposure), and also to force Nixon to promise the end of the war, when campaigning for reelection. In January 1973, the Paris Agreement was signed. Nixon, so eager to get the agreement to appease the US public pressure, acquiesced to the main and only goal of NVN: per agreement, the US withdraws troops from SVN, while NVN troops remain in SVN. That was the ultimate goal assigned by the NVN politbureau to Lê Đức Thọ, chief NVN negotiator: “quân Mỹ rút, quân ta ở lại” (the US out, we stay). Thọ had full powers to negotiate as long as THE GOAL is in the agreement. NVN knew too well once the US withdraws from the VN quagmire, the US public would never allow and the US as a country will have no gut for any kind of substantial re-commitment, no matter what Nixon says or threatens. NVN also knew too well that the “vietnamization” would crumble without US air power (during the 1972 Easter offensive, SVN troops finally got the battlefields back only thanks to US airpower). In Jan 1974, China attacked and seized the Paracel Islands from SVN, under the neutrality of the US. According to SVN admiral Hồ Văn Kỳ Toại, the US 7th fleet just watched SVN sail men drowned in the Pacific Ocean. Exactly like the NVN intelligence predicted. And the Chinese presence there only grows until now, and the Paracel Islands are right now in hot dispute between Vietnam and China, and were part of the US argument for the “pivot to Asia” policy.
China was duped by the US, in thinking the Paris Peace Agreement would guaranty the US support for SVN. From the Chinese perspective, they hold the lever for the fighting in Vietnam. The more pressure they put from the North (into intensifying the hostilities), the more the US have to do to support their client in the South. Vietnam would stay divided (thus weak), and China would hold the command lever. That was a gross error of interpretation of US intention. For the US, to drop SVN is not a “betrayal” in any moral sense. Just need a “decent interval” (Kissinger’s words) between the agreement and the collapse of SVN. That interval was 27 months. It’s just like you close a bankrupt company and plan another business model. The business model is to use Vietnam as a bait to put a wedge between the two communist giants: the USSR and China.
In 1975, Hanoi decided to launch the final offensive against the south, convinced that the US would never re-commit itself to defend its “ally”, and the SVN army would not stand a chance without US airpower (the whole military doctrine taught to the SVN military was to wage war with US air superiority). The over million regular and 600,000 regional troops that composed the SVN armed forces crumbled in more than a month almost without a fight. On April 30, 1975 SVN surrendered.
From Hanoi’s point of view, only now the business of Independence Fight is finished.
Tension with China immediately after Vietnam is unified
Immediately after the war is finished in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge (who just won in Cambodia around the time NVN won SVN) started to attack Vietnam. On May 4, 1975 Khmer Rouge troops assaulted the Vietnamese Phú Quốc island in the Gulf of Siam, and massacred 500 civilians. Vietnamese troops fought back. The Khmer Rouge regime was under Chinese control. Escalations between Cambodia and Vietnam grew ever since and culminated on Dec 13, 1978 when the Khmer Rouge launched 10 out of 19 divisions, heavily armed by the Chinese, across the border with Vietnam in an attempt to seize the provincial capital of Tây Ninh.
Now, let’s put the big picture into perspective. China was not pleased to see a unified Vietnam, especially one that is allied with the USSR. It instigated an attack by the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. Vietnamese leadership knew too well that the southern part of Vietnam cannot be defended if Cambodia is hostile, for it itself took advantage of the Cambodian territory during the war against SVN. Inside Vietnam, it was estimated the Chinese ethnic to top 2 million, with 1.5 million in Saigon area and 300 thousands in North Vietnam. The problem posed for Vietnam was evident: no stability and peace if the Khmer Rouge continue their hostilities on Beijing’s order, but invading Cambodia would trigger a fierce response from Beijing and Vietnam would have no chance of resisting with such a huge Chinese 5th column. Thus, while defending the territory against Khmer aggression (without ever crossing the border into Cambodia), the Vietnamese applied methodically all measures aimed at breaking the back of the Chinese 5th column, from economic to social measures. That led to the bankruptcy of 50 thousand important Chinese owned businesses, and eventually hundreds of thousands of people of Chinese descent forced to leave Vietnam. In the meantime, Hanoi set up a group of pro Vietnamese Cambodians to govern Cambodia in the near future.
When the Khmer Rouge attacked on Dec 13, 1978, Hanoi was ready to retaliate (and expecting to be retaliated by Beijing). The day before Christmas Eve 1978, VN launched its own offensive to invade Cambodia. Phnom Pen (capital of Cambodia) fell 2 weeks later, and 2 weeks after that, on Jan 17, 1979 the whole Cambodia was under Vietnamese control. The pro Vietnam government was installed in Phnom Pen. Exactly on month later, on Feb 17, 1979 China launched a cross border offensive against Vietnam with 100 thousand troops. Devastation in the Northern provinces of Vietnam was appalling. After a month, China declared victory and withdrew. Vietnam also claimed victory. Each side counted 50 thousands casualties (dead and wounded). The USSR officially condemned China, but did not substantially engage in the sino vietnamese conflict besides helping the Vietnamese with transportation means in moving troops.
Vietnam did what it had to do for existential reasons. But it did not wholly foresee “the Cambodian trap” set by China. Vietnam was stuck in the quagmire for more than a decade until Sept 1989 when it withdrew troops and accepted a political settlement under Beijing’s terms. The occupation of Cambodia drained substantial Vietnamese resources, which were already very scarce. Vietnam was totally isolated diplomatically on the international arena. The Khmer Rouge still kept the Cambodian seat at the UN, with US and China’s insistence.
Right after winning the war, the Vietnamese engaged in 1976 negotiations with US in view of normalizing the relationship between the two countries. The Carter administration was keen to the idea. During his trip to the US, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping warned Carter that the US had to choose normalization with China or with Vietnam, not both. The US did not really have a choice. Relations between Vietnam and China became normalized only after 1989 (although the 1979 war lasted only 1 month, low intensity fighting continued for another decade). Note that in 1985 Gorbachev told the Vietnamese that the Soviets had to stop aid to Vietnam and Hanoi had to be on its own. The US maintained the embargo vis a vis Vietnam. That was the period when Vietnam was most isolated diplomatically. In 1986, Vietnam decided to launch its own reforms called Đổi Mới (Renovation) and adopted market economy, phasing out the typical communist subsidized centralized economy. Normalization with China was a must. And treat the “elder brother” with reverence as Vietnam always did for a thousand years. In 2009, after thirty years of negotiations, an agreement on the land border was signed between China and Vietnam. What Vietnam gains is an official recognition of the border by China (first ever in the history of the two countries), but what Vietnam looses is a symbolic loss of a historic landmark: the Nam Quan pass that historically symbolized the sovereignty of Vietnam. Although the pass has no strategic or economic value, its symbolic value cannot be overstated. I guess that is the price demanded to Vietnam as a reverence to the “elder brother”. Symbol plays a big role in Asia. Most Vietnamese still resent that fact, and consider it as a “proof” that the Vietnamese leadership is nothing less than vassal to the Chinese, no matter the fact that the same leadership is the only one that dared fighting a war with China when it had to in 1979 and that it took 30 years of negotiations, almost kilometer by kilometer to come to agreement. But that is for land border. Vietnam still contests the Chinese 9 dash line called the cow tongue line in the East Sea (South China Sea for the Chinese), and still claims sovereignty on the Paracel and Spratly islands.
Main developments since then, and where does Vietnam stand?
1989: normalization with China
1991: the USSR collapsed. Russia remains a friend of Vietnam until present day.
1994: the US lifted all embargo on Vietnam.
1995: Vietnam joins the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)
1995: establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam
2007: Vietnam joins the World Trade Organization (WTO)
Since the adoption of the market economy, Vietnam gradually joins the international playfield as much as it possibly could. It made big progress in term of lifting the economic condition of its 90 million people, and combatting poverty. Infrastructure modernization, agricultural production, manufacture, etc… took off, and Vietnam became one the Asian “dragon” cited as example by the World Bank. Of course, much still needs to be reformed especially on the human rights and corruption areas but that is for another topic.
Where does Vietnam stand on the moving ground of international geopolitics in the post Cold War era of globalization?
The official position of Vietnam is “to be friend with everyone”.
Vietnam is a very active member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), busy promoting a more structured and integrated regional association.
It enjoys booming trade with the US and Europe, boosting the economy for the last 20 years. Foreign investment skyrocketed, especially from regional neighbors from Japan, China, Taiwan, the ASEAN countries, Australia, Korea.
It maintains strong economic, cultural, and especially military ties with Russia that provides modern hardware ranging from Su-30 fighter jets, to SA-300 missiles, to Kilo submarines with Klub missiles, tanks T-60, BMPT, etc…. Russia also helps Vietnam in Petroleum industry, Satellite construction, and Nuclear Energy, etc…
Vietnam also buys military and civilian equipment from the US and Europe, as well as India.
With China, Vietnam is pursuing a very warm relationship, maintaining deep economic ties. But one can argue that Vietnam’s attitude is polite (even reverential) with China, but not totally trustful. The two countries still contest the Paracel and Spratly islands. Vietnam welcomes the US presence in the area as a guarantor to the “right to navigation”. The US is courting Vietnam in its China containment policy called “pivot to Asia”. It especially dreams of using (again, as during the Vietnam war) the Cam Ranh deep water base for its Navy. Vietnam rejected the idea. But Russian bombers are allowed to use the location for refueling, triggering a protest from the US on 3/11/2015 (which Vietnam ignores).
The US (as much as the ASEAN nations) knows too well that in the region, the only military capable of standing ground facing the Chinese PLA is the Vietnamese People’s Army.
Observing the balancing acts of Vietnam, playing nice with “everyone”, one can observe that it tries at all cost to avoid being a US base against China, while flirting with the US just enough to send the message to the “elder brother from the north” to not “push too hard”. In the meantime, it deepens friendship with Russia, the one big power that did not fail Vietnam in the past.
Its posture with China is carefully calibrated to show enough reverence to the “elder brother”, while maintaining a hypothetical high cost to any Chinese aggression attempt. The 1979 war showed to China that fighting Vietnam does come with a (very) high cost especially now that China is in its quest to develop Eurasia with Russia through the ambitious New Silk Road project. But the 1979 war also showed to Vietnam that when it comes to fighting China, it is on its own. Not even the big friend Russia would confront the “elder brother”, and especially now that Russia and China are in symbiotic mode. The big friend is still very useful though in talking positive to the elder brother to look at the big picture and not to bully the little guy Vietnam.
Vietnam knows too well that it should not trust the US. Should it participate in the China containment policy, and should China retaliates, it would be the first to be sacrificed by the US, in order to preserve its strength in South Korea and Japan.
In summary, Vietnam
- Says Hi to everyone
- Tries to consolidate its role in ASEAN, and participates in all international forums
- Shows reverence to China, without trusting it, while pushing business and economic ties
- Does as much business with the US and the West as possible, and let the US court it without trusting the US and ultimately without “marrying” it
- Deepens friendship with Russia, the only true friend so far that did not fail it in the past, and to whom the Chinese extend a listening ear.
The last point is interesting, in consideration that all the other powers have failed Vietnam in the past: China, US, France, Britain (bringing the French back to Vietnam in 1945), Japan (harsh occupation and provoked famine).
Notice that Vietnam is among the “founding members” negotiating the American Trans Pacific Accord (TPA) project, has Free Trade Agreement with the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) starting mid 2015, and is among the “founding members” of the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB).
In view of the redistribution of cards in world geopolitics, Vietnam must have a global view and a clear notion of its place in the region, before determining where to stand on the global stage. In that view, ASEAN integration is of utmost importance for Vietnam. It’s an existential issue.
Think ASIA, from an ASEAN viewpoint
The US/Western centered international System is collapsing in front of our own naked eyes. From the financial crisis since 2007, to the social unrest in many developed countries (Greece, Ireland, France, etc…) to the popular revolts called the Arab Spring, to the turbulence in the Middle East (Lybia, Syria, ISIS, Yemen,…) to Ukraine, to the “new Cold War”, etc…, to the inability of the G20 group to come up with coordinated solutions for the world crisis, to the abysmal US debt problem, the world is heading toward the end of the US/Western centric order. Many other global players are claiming their share in the world governance.
The global systemic crisis engenders a geopolitical dislocation of worldwide proportion (see GEAB). Many geopolitical blocs will emerge in a new system which will be multipolar, such as Europe (and Euroland in particular) even though it’s in crisis at present, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), Latin America, and of course the giant China. And the biggest next geopolitical event is the “symbiotic alliance” (to borrow the term from the Saker) between China and Russia and the creation of the Eurasian space.
China is rising to (re)claim its world superpower status. And its consequences are tremendous for the world at large and for its neighbors in particular.
An Asian bloc centered on China will appear within the next decade. This is part of the general historical trends, no matter if one likes it or not. In that context, some thinking needs to be put forward, regarding the Asian countries in the natural sphere of Chinese influence. Depending on the actions and decisions of the political and social elites among those countries, we will witness a smooth successful and mutually beneficial Asian integration, or a conflictual tide encompassing the whole region, pulled by the attraction force of world superpower China. To borrow the metaphor from F Biancheri, China is like a super-sized supertanker navigating the world ocean engendering waves and currents on its path. An individual neighboring country can be:
- An “independent” raft alongside the super-sized supertanker, with the inherent risk of being drowned just by the waves from the latter.
- An “independent” raft pulled by another supertanker in opposite direction with the Chinese super-sized supertanker, with the certainty of being crushed in ocean.
- Absorbed by and be part of the super-sized supertanker, with the loss of national identity and independence.
- A part of a midsized tanker alongside the super-sized supertanker.
Only the last option is mutually beneficial for all countries involved. But it does not come naturally, and demands a great deal of efforts and determination from the political and social elites.
ASEAN UNION – the Evolution through necessity vs the Revolution through ideology
Since its inception in 1967 with 5 countries, ASEAN has evolved into a much more integrated entity of 10 countries with many structures of coordination in the economic, political, cultural spheres. As a group, ASEAN has a population of more than 600 million, and ranks 9th in the world (3rd in Asia) in term of GDP. The ASEAN Charter (15 Dec 2008) that turns ASEAN into a legal entity, aims to moving closer to an “EU style community”. ASEAN has also concluded numerous free trade agreements with China, Japan, S Korea (Asean + 3), Australia, New Zealand, and India, and is negotiating an agreement with EU, and Taiwan.
As we can observe, ASEAN is moving toward a greater integration. It must accelerate the pace of integration to become an ASEAN Union similar to the European Union. The social and most importantly the political elites of the member countries must have the determination to act toward that goal. The “ASEAN Six majors” (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam) can form the head wagon, pulling the other four (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei Darussalam) in that direction, without necessarily waiting for unanimous consensus among the ten. Time is flying fast and historic trends will accelerate the pace. ASEAN as a Union will be that midsized tanker alongside the super-sized supertanker. If the ASEAN countries fail to push further their integration into a Union, they will face the unenviable position of having to choose among the bad and worse of the three remaining options.
Any political, social, cultural, educational, environmental, economic reform or evolution in each member country must aim at that Union goal. As a Union, a harmonization in all spheres of society must take place among all the member countries. All need to move toward that end. Thus, the political and societal management system in each country must go along with the path of union integration. Such evolution is desirable for all. But the elites must keep in mind that if evolution is desirable, revolution is on the contrary to be avoided at all cost. A revolution brings necessarily within itself a high degree of instability, and that’s the absolute unwelcomed ingredient in the march toward Union integration. Some well intended activists from countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam might feel encouraged by the “revolutions” happening in Arab countries, or the siren of so called “color revolutions” and might think they should take the issues on their own hands. But actually, by derailing the path to an ASEAN Union, they ultimately derail their own country’s future with a great risk of being in option 2 (An “independent” raft pulled by another supertanker in opposite direction with the Chinese super-sized supertanker, with the certainty of being crushed in ocean).
When Union is on its way, necessity of openness will bring each individual country in par with the others and democracy, market economy, educational system, etc… find common ground in the whole group. Evolution through necessity is much more desirable than revolution through ideology.
The Asian bloc centered on China that will appear during the next decade will encompass all the countries of ASEAN plus Japan, the Koreas, and China. In the optimal option discussed above regarding the small countries, ASEAN countries must be part of the Asian community as an ASEAN Union and not as ten separate members. This Asian community will compose of:
– A super-sized supertanker China,
– A supertanker Japan,
– A midsized tanker ASEAN,
– And a tanker S Korea (N Korea will be considered “absorbed” by China or S Korea)
Those four members can work toward a more integrated community, without unbearable disproportionality between themselves. Such an Asian Community will decidedly be one of the biggest world players, for the benefit of all.
I don’t mention India as it is a subcontinent by its own weight. Same for Russia.
Through projects like the Russia centered Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Chinese infrastructure and development mega project known as the New Economic Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road, the above mentioned Asian Community only makes more sense.
WEST PACIFIC COOPERATION
The West Pacific region is the world’s most dynamic area. With the formation of the Asian Community, this part of the world will be of utmost importance to the environmental, economic, political, social spheres of the planet. Many issues directly related to this area have arisen in the past and will continue to arise in the future. A formal cooperation framework between the countries bordering the West Pacific Coast is of vital interest. All issues between those countries relating to the coast and maritime activities, including territorial disputes, economic zones, sea lanes, etc… must be discussed and resolved within the “Cooperation”. Of course, it should be bore in mind that the WestPac area should be considered as a specific domain of the WestPac Cooperation, and not an “international” domain where a hegemon located thousands of miles away can claim as its own area of “vital interest”. The West Pacific region from north to south should comprise of Russia, China, Japan, Korea(s), Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei Darussalam.
With the collapse of the US centered world system, several geopolitical blocs will emerge within the next decade. China will be the center of an Asian bloc. Regarding the latter, the smoothest and most beneficial for all will be the finalization of the ASEAN Union which is member of the Asian Community, and the creation of the West Pacific Cooperation to manage issues related to the WestPac area.
Pushing for ASEAN integration is an existential matter for Vietnam. Any necessary change in the organization of the political/societal life must follow the path of evolution through necessity and not revolution through ideology. The nation’s existence is at stake.