Realpolitik in Action
June 1, 2012 9:37 AM   Subscribe

The United States sees the world as Vietnam does: threatened by growing Chinese power.

The difference is that whereas the United States has many geopolitical interests, Vietnam has only one: to counter China.
posted by Renoroc (18 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just started reading this right before you posted it, so I am still only a tiny bit into it.

I was struck, though, by a comment made to me in Hai Phong by a boat captain. This guy was a former NVA soldier, piloting a warship in Gulf of Tonkin. He was very very kind to me and a friend, sharing his pipe with me and asking us to dinner at his home. Through a Vietnamese friend, I asked him tentatively about how it felt to host Americans. He said, repeatedly, "you are a guest in our country and our home and aboard our boat. I am your host, and I love and respect you." It was very very sweet, and the whole episode was pretty touching and memorable.

Later, my Vietnamese friend pulled me aside and said "You know, of course, he only feels that way because we kicked your ass in the war. If you guys had one, he'd probably try to kill you in your sleep" That brought things into a new perspective. Over the next few days, both of my new Vietnamese friends made off-the-cuff references to "kicking China's ass just like we kicked America's ass." Nearly each time I heard either man speak of China or the Chinese, it was in reference to feeling eternally bullied, and usually followed by some vow to one day defeat China.

Not even totally sure what I'm saying here, other than that I love Vietnam.
posted by broadway bill at 9:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


*won, not 'one'...
posted by broadway bill at 9:52 AM on June 1, 2012


China represents an interesting problem for the US and its fractured approach to strategy. Their focus on the long view and a comprehensive + consistent strategy means they incrementally make inroads on their long term objectives. They operate within the bounds of the international system, using the WTO/UN/etc. rules and procedures (formerly the exclusive purview of the West/North) to keep states uninvolved in their affairs. Short of war, there's not a great deal to be done to stop Chinese expansion - the game now is to moderate and direct that power towards mutual goals.
posted by squorch at 9:53 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


What? What?

Hang on here. I watch the Military Channel a lot. What do you mean they won?

WTF?

Ah crap. I should have been paying attention. My mother tried to tell me never to send General Westmoreland where you could send Colonel Saunders.

Anyhow, I was just a kid.

Never mind.
posted by mule98J at 10:16 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


About a decade ago I was in Hanoi and went to the Army museum there. Front and center was the first tank to roll into Saigon in 1975, with the rest of the museum organized chronologically - the first time they kicked out the Chinese, then the second, etc., then the French, then us. I was the only white person there and thought that this, in a room with a punji pit (with GI boot still attached) and photos of smiling GIs holding up VC heads might be a tad awkward. Instead the visitors clearly thought it was neat. This did indeed probably have something to do with who won that war.

Later in the week I went to the Air Force museum, surrounded by shot down US planes, and which they had to open just for me and my GF as it was in an industrial area foreigners didn't go to. My presence quickly got the attention of the secret police - it was probably the most exciting thing they had to deal with in months - and several ended up tailing us conspicuously for the rest of the day. We all got to play spy for hours, ducking through shops and into cabs while looking as furtive as possible to see how long they'd tail us and to give them more to write about.

I love that country.
posted by Blue Meanie at 10:24 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Vietnam. And Taiwan. And the Phillipines. And Thailand.

The western Pacific is more and more like Europe in 1754...
posted by ocschwar at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Viet Nam is not going to kick anyone's ass (that is, China's)...what we have is a huge economic dynamo developing, and it will become a powerhouse in the Asian sphere, offsetting our role somewhat, and thus creating two super-power setup as we once had with Russia. But so much of our economy and debt is their hands, and their growth and economic well-being from our needs, that it would be mutually disadvantageous to go to war with each other.
posted by Postroad at 10:33 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's something not in the article: there's a popular grassroots movement in Vietnam that is violently anti-Chinese and quite active on the internet. The bauxite crisis rallied a lot of people against the Chinese (with a lot of ugly xenophobia targeted at the Chinese workers). The 99-year old war hero Võ Nguyên Giáp penned a letter criticizing the mining and, implicitly, the Vietnamese governement for letting it happen. And that's quite troublesome for the authorities, who are being accused of selling out to the Chinese, which is not very far from being accused of being a việt gian, a traitor. So far, they've been able to put a lid on the protests. For instance, a documentary that accuses the Chinese Navy of mistreating the Vietnamese fishermen who fish near the Paracels was banned last November, even though it was made with all the proper authorizations and praised by the Vietnamese press.
posted by elgilito at 10:39 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Re: Broadway Bill's story:
It's ironic because North Vietnam depended on China to supply them with literally everything except for the humans sent to slaughter. Don't get me wrong, they might could "defeat" China if they were willing to lose another 3 million people (that was just in NV). But even the guerrilla tactics like IEDs and sniping, combined with occasional suicide bombings, won't deter the Chinese--who will "run out of ammo before they run out of men"--as much as it does the US.
Today's China's military is a lot different than it was in 1979.
posted by whatgorilla at 10:49 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


>But so much of our economy and debt is their hands, and their growth and economic well-being from our needs, that it would be mutually disadvantageous to go to war with each other.

All things considered, we get along as well as could be expected with China, and its government of low-key technocrats.

In 20 years, though, as the next generation comes to power in China, things could be very, very different. With China's gender imbalance and rising nationalism, it will probably be far more expansionist than it is now.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:54 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


In 20 years, though, as the next generation comes to power in China, things could be very, very different. With China's gender imbalance and rising nationalism, it will probably be far more expansionist than it is now.

In 20 years China will be far older (in demographic terms), has a fertility rate well below replacement and has a real problem with wealth distribution.

Older populations generally don't start wars of aggression and China has learned that you steal/make way more money with a briefcase than you can with a gun (or tank). The story of the next century of the world is going to be how to take care of all the old people, not how are we going to feed all these people.
posted by bartonlong at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I read that as "The United States sees the world as Vietnam", which has a certain ring to it...)
posted by Drexen at 11:13 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


One thing about China is that it's been decades since they fought a hot war with anyone (barring the odd Himalayan skirmish). They're governed by technocrats, not ideologues (for the most part), and have demonstrated increasing skill in exercising soft power -- sending investment and advisers, for instance, to large swathes of Africa and South America.

I was struck, though, by a comment made to me in Hai Phong by a boat captain.

You are Tom Friedman and I claim my five pounds.
posted by dhartung at 11:14 AM on June 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


China is threatening some not so soft power maneuvers against the Phillipines in the South China Sea (mentioned in the article is a blog, The Comparitivist, run by mefi's own Trinarian).
posted by whatgorilla at 11:57 AM on June 1, 2012


>In 20 years China will be far older (in demographic terms), has a fertility rate well below replacement and has a real problem with wealth distribution.

All true. In particular, the wealth distribution problem, and the urban vs. rural split, are probably going to lead to increasing political turmoil.

>it's been decades since they fought a hot war with anyone... and have demonstrated increasing skill in exercising soft power

Also true.

It's my impression, though, that a wealthy and expanding state, particularly one with the massive scale of China, can rarely hew long to a narrow strategy-- in this case, that of expanding economically and diplomatically but not militarily. Eventually internal pressures drive it to stake broader claims. While it's true that China's historical narrative is notably non-expansionist-- it's all about control and containment, the struggle to maintain order across a vast landscape, and the disconnect between center and periphery-- the country also seems to be developing a new narrative: We Must Reclaim Our Rightful Position.

More to the point, though, even if China's military moves are largely defensive, the potential for tension with the U.S. is still great. The U.S. has built itself an empire; has over-extended itself; and now has difficulty contracting the scope of that empire, without disrupting the various dependencies that maintain the remnant of its influence.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:12 PM on June 1, 2012



It's my impression, though, that a wealthy and expanding state, particularly one with the massive scale of China, can rarely hew long to a narrow strategy-- in this case, that of expanding economically and diplomatically but not militarily. Eventually internal pressures drive it to stake broader claims. While it's true that China's historical narrative is notably non-expansionist-- it's all about control and containment, the struggle to maintain order across a vast landscape, and the disconnect between center and periphery-- the country also seems to be developing a new narrative: We Must Reclaim Our Rightful Position.


Thankfully that Rightful Position includes some Confucian thinking about China being an exemplar nation.
posted by ocschwar at 12:21 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


In a thread on Tibet here a few years back, there was a very interesting and insightful comment from a Vietnamese MeFite on Vietnam's historical relationship with China (and the parallels with Tibet)- it's pretty much just as this article describes, and I think gives a pretty clear picture of why, despite everything, a great many Vietnamese might favor the US over China if forced to choose between the two.

ochswar: Thankfully that Rightful Position includes some Confucian thinking about China being an exemplar nation.

I have my doubts that this is going to make much of a difference. A deeply engrained element of American nationalist ideology is a concept of the US as a defender and promoter of freedom and democracy, but this hasn't stopped the US from, all too often, actively crushing democratic movements and supporting dictatorships. In the same way, I seriously doubt the idea of China as an exemplar nation would actually lead a nationalistically-motivated Chinese superpower to act like one, at least by any definition of "exemplar" that would have much appeal to anyone other than a Chinese nationalist. And in general, the ideology of most of the Chinese nationalists I've come across online strikes me as being not only expansionist, but aggressively, virulently imperialistic- to be sure, I think the people spouting that stuff are more or less the Chinese equivalent of Tea Partiers and are not representative of majority or CCP opinion (though I have the impression that, as with Tea Partiers in America, they have way more influence and political/cultural capital than they should), but there's definitely a current there which could turn really ugly if it got any sort of power, and I think the PRC's neighbors have good reason to fear that prospect. (As it is, though I think the Chinese government at this point in time is not particularly ideologically driven and is very unlikely to start a shooting war anywhere, I would say that the examples of Tibet, Xinjiang, and the stuff they've been getting up to in the South China Sea of late pretty much give the lie to claims that the PRC would be any more "anti-imperialist" or non-interventionist as a great power than the US is.)
posted by a louis wain cat at 12:06 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't disagree with any of that, a louis wain cat, but I do believe that the Chinese attitude that justifies their aggressions is that the traumatic experience they had in the 19th Century entitles them to a leave of absence from their role as the ever-exemplary Middle Kingdom, and that as their country develops and recovers that rightful position they think they deserve, it will be increasingly feasible to check their behavior with shame.
posted by ocschwar at 2:02 PM on June 2, 2012


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