Vietnam caught between China and the US

In East Asia, the classic diplomatic proverb is often proven true: “our country doesn’t have friends or enemies, only interests.”  As a consequence, alliances change in the pursuit of advantages.  Friendships are insincere and provisional in nature.  Denials and changes in direction are on the agenda.  All of this was possible for the end of the Cold War, for the demise of the ideological opponent.  The enemy is uncertain, variable, just like the country it opposes.  Convenience prevails over line-ups.  In this picture, Vietnam’s position probably represents the most convincing example.  Vietnam’s foreign policy is dictated by the relationship between the two great powers, China and the United States.  It’s divided from the first by a long, inaccessible border, rife with tensions and connections.  It fought a war that marked an era with the second, and it still bears the scars fifty years later.  The government in Hanoi has always tried to use the rivalry between Washington and Beijing to its advantage.  It was natural to side with China during the war.  However, after the US withdrawal and the country’s liberation in 1975, its thousand-year-old distaste for its neighbor exploded anew, resulting in war in 1979.  This was Vietnam’s condition, left to manage its recovery without friends except for the declining USSR.  For this reason, normalizing relations with China and the US was necessary.  Like always, a developing nation needs capital, technology, management and political protection.  Hanoi could find them in the other capitals, albeit in different amounts.  The results were very valid, but trilateral tensions were not absorbed thanks to this.  Vietnam affirmed itself as the umpteenth success story in Asia; it became a strong little tiger, a medium regional power.  Its growth rhythms were elevated, bolstered by exports and foreign investments.  At this point, China has been its number one trade partner for many years, holding supremacy in the country’s imports, which instead find their primary destination in the US.  Defeating endemic poverty was the government’s most relevant social achievement.  However, the crisis in 2008 also revealed weaknesses.  Declining exports to industrialized markets accentuated the country’s structural problems: state-owned companies’ diseconomies, corruption, the excessive weight of the agricultural sphere, and the general underdevelopment in production.  Accession to the WTO should have improved the situation, but results were slower than they should have been.  Vietnam, therefore, was forced to brake during its race toward the finish line of a medium-wealth state, which seemed to be within its reach.  After years of adjustments, the situation seems to be on the road to recovery now, with an annual GDP increase of over 5% in 2013.  In the meantime, China’s impact has grown, not only for trade but also in terms of investments; China’s FDI is directed more and more toward the south.  At this point, China has decisive weight, but it is bordering on suffocation.  Its vindication of the Sprately and Paracel Islands (the latter in the vicinity of Vietnam, while the former neighbor many Southeast Asian countries) has rendered the situation politically incandescent, and diplomacy could leave the field to the warning signs of war.  Hanoi has no choice but to turn to Washington for a route that doesn’t lead to unimaginable territorial, prestige, and legitimacy losses.  The coordinated maneuvers, appeals to internationalize the dispute (which Beijing does not want), and ASEAN’s alarming declarations confirm that tensions in the South China Sea go beyond the simple islands involved: they are a pretense for researching the balance of great powers.  Vietnam finds itself in the middle of this change that it obvious does not want to endure.  In conclusion, a role reversal is happening.  China is economically necessary but politically feared; the US is no longer the enemy, but the unavoidable partner.  The Asian giant guarantees development, the American giant guarantees security.  They are different priorities compared to the past, but priorities Vietnam must learn to live with because strengthening the state can only occur via complete economic robustness.