Vietnam’s urgent need to modernize its army in face of Chinese threats may very well spur political reforms in the country.
By a strange twist of fate, Hanoi – which received its supply of increasingly sophisticated weaponry from Russia and China during the Vietnam War – is now turning to its former foe to overhaul its dated military arsenal. During Leon Panetta’s visit in Hanoi last June, Vietnam Defense Minister Gen. Phuong Quang Thanh, in fact, openly called on the Secretary of Defense to lift a ban on lethal weapons sales to the country so it could modernize its armed forces. According to VietPress USA, Vietnam’s original purchase package would include nuclear submarines of the Silo class, and F-18 and possibly F-22 stealth jet fighters.
Although Thanh didn’t give the reasons for the above request, it is no secret that Vietnam urgently needs an advanced weapons system to face off China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and even a possible land invasion by its former ally and historic enemy to the North.
The recent U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement – as evidenced by U.S. naval vessels dogging in Danang and Cam Ranh harbors, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta’s recent visits to Vietnam and the current visit to Washington of Vietnam Vice Defense Minister Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, has emboldened Vietnam to stand up to China’s expansionism. By a stunning about-face, the Vietnam National Assembly last June approved a Law of the Sea, which asserted Vietnam’s ownership of the Paracels and Spratly archipelagoes located within the outer edges of the Vietnam continental shelf in compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. (In a submission to the United Nations in 2009, the Vietnamese communist government recognized China’s de facto sovereignty over the Paracels Archipelagoes, east of Hue, and reported only a pending dispute with Malaysia over islands in the Spratleys, south of the Paracels Islands.)
Lost in the fast-changing geo-political allegiances in the Asia-Pacific region is the fact that the post World War II policy of “containment” remains a popular ploy in today’s global political chess game. Vietnam has thus regained its strategic value in U.S. eyes as a missing link in the containment scheme and a counter-balance to the increasing threat of Chinese expansionism. And Vietnam appears only too willing to accommodate.
But an effective and lasting strategic alliance requires the partners to share the same moral values and political ideology. In other words, only a free and democratic Vietnam enjoying popular support and the support of the community of free nations can stand up to China’s aggression and effectively contribute to regional security.
On the other hand, any strengthening of important strategic cooperation, such as the contemplated arms sales to Vietnam, must have the support of U.S. Congress. But the U.S. Congress is always concerned about human rights issues. On July 9, for example, Frank Wolf, an outspoken member of Congress, requested the dismissal of U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear for having failed to pressure the Vietnamese government to improve its human records.
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also underscores the importance of freedom and human rights in emerging nations. During a visit to Mongolia earlier this month, she touted the recent democratic reforms in Asian countries such as Mongolia, Myanmar and East Timor. She also visiedt Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to push for greater democratic reforms across Asia.
There is a saying in Vietnam that if the Vietnamese communist government follows China, it will lose the country; and if it sides with the United States, it will lose the party. Recent events show that the Vietnamese communist leadership appears ready to accept the consequences of a closer strategic cooperation with the United States. They may have a hunch, indeed, that the United States containment scheme against China may succeed – like the one against the Soviet bloc had succeeded during the Cold War era -– and that the collapse of the Chinese communist regime is only a question of time because China is facing unsurmountable ethnic, economic, political and social dilemmas. Thus, it may be time for them to jump ship before it is too late.
If the recent collapse of long-established dictatorial regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, the subsequent political reforms in Myanmar, Mongolia and East Timor, and the seemingly relentless spread of democratic values across the globe are any indication, don’t be surprised if the long-awaited Asian Spring is already on the horizon.
Thi Quang Lam
Thi Quang Lam is a former general in the South Vietnamese Army and the author of “The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon” and “Hell in An Loc: the 1972 Easter Invasion and the Battle that Saved South Vietnam”