Observations of an Expat: Vietnam now US Proxy

May 27, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

AP photo



Tom Arms

It has taken 41 years. But Vietnam has finally completed the long journey from arch villain to American proxy.

The final catalyst for this transformation? The South China Sea and the competing claims of China and Vietnam for these 2.2 million square miles of strategic maritime real estate.

President Obama denies it. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang does the same. But Obama’s decision to lift the long-standing arms embargo against Vietnam is Washington’s way of saying: “We need you Vietnam” and Vietnam’s way of replying: “We are ready and willing to be needed. Because we need you too.”

The South China Sea is a clear case of classic geopolitics. It metaphorically sits alongside the Panama Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, The English Channel, Suez and the Straits of Hormuz as one of the world’s maritime choke points. More than half the world’s merchant fleet traffic passes through the South China Sea. If China has total control then it can effectively cut off Japan and South Korea from Europe, Australia, India, the Middle East and Africa. It can also sever the link between India, Southeast Asia and the West Coast of America.

Then there is the oil and gas. There is as much oil in the South China Sea—seven billion barrels proven so far—as in all of Saudi Arabia. There is also 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

And finally, we mustn’t forget our finned friends. Twelve percent of the world’s total fish catch comes from the South China Sea. Most of it goes to China. The Chinese comprise twenty percent of the world’s population but consume more than a third of the world’s fish.

Because of competing claims, there is no effective regulatory fishing regime. The result is that the South China Sea is in danger of being severely over-fished. As fish are migratory creatures, this will have environmental consequences throughout the Pacific Rim.

Other countries also have claims. Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines want a slice. Taiwan can be pretty much dismissed as riding on the Beijing coattails as part of their assertion that they inherited all pre-1949 Chinese rights. Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines each claim part of the sea, but only Vietnam and China insist on ownership of the entire 2.2 million square miles.


A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard in the South China Sea in this file – STRINGER/ Reuters


The Chinese and Vietnamese claims reach back to the dawn of Asian lawmaking and legal fortunes have been made—and will continue to be made—arguing the respective cases.

It would seem therefore, that the maxim about possession being nine-tenths of the law is particularly relevant in the South China Sea.  That is why Beijing has been piling sand and sinking concrete piles to turn reefs into military bases with barracks, ports and airstrips.

To lay down America’s freedom of the seas marker, Obama has personally protested to President Xi Jinping and sent destroyers sailing past the Chinese installations.

The enmity between Vietnam and China goes back even further than the competing claims to the South China Sea. Ever since the third century BC, the Vietnamese have struggled for independence from their giant neighbour. It wasn’t until 1858 and the Treaty of Tianjin, that the Vietnamese firmly broke free of the Chinese, but to do so they had to accept French colonial rule.

During the war against first France and then America, the Vietnamese communists reluctantly accepted Chinese aid. But their real allies were the Soviet Union and when Beijing offered Hanoi a massive aid package to sever ties with Moscow they were met with an emphatic no.

They were right to do so.  Only four years after the fall of Saigon, China invaded Vietnam with 600,000 troops. They were beaten back within a month by half a million battle-hardened Vietnamese.

Setting aside the South China Sea, the two countries now have reasonable relations. China, for instance, is Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. But the long and bitter history is still there. Washington is clearly not above taking advantage of it.






Tom Arms broadcasts on world affairs for a number of US radio stations including WTKF at http://www.wtkf107.com/. His Weekly Viewpoints discussion programme can be heard at 1830 EST on Wednesdays and his LookAhead at the next week’s main events on Fridays at 1800.


LookAhead Radio World Report for week commencing 30th May:





Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, www.fensinformation.com) which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

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1 Comment

  1. Rupen Savoulian May 27, at 07:16

    Good article - lots of interesting and relevant background history, which places the current thawing of relations between Washington and Hanoi in a historical context. This article does prompt a number of observations. Is Hanoi a proxy of Washington? No. The Vietnamese leadership are fiercely protective of their independence, and will not allow themselves to become pawns in the games of the imperial powers. Having said that, it is true that Obama is making a cynical and coldly- calculated measure to try and draw Vietnam into the American orbit. Why? Obama is making a pivot to Asia, and cobbling together an alliance of anti-Chinese partners, including Australia. He is exploiting the antagonisms between China and Vietnam for his own strategic purposes. Lifting the decades-old arms embargo was the main announcement coming out of Obama's visit to Hanoi. This move is quite ironic, given the sheer devastation of Vietnam caused by the use of American military weapons. This thawing of relations opens up the possibility of pressing for another issue to reconcile the two nations: the payment of reparations by the US to Vietnam for the shattering environmental and human destruction caused by the prolonged US assault on that country. Australia, my home country, was a very enthusiastic and willing participant in the American attack on Vietnam. The prime minister at the time, Robert Menzies, pushed for a commitment of Australian military personnel to the US war on Vietnam without even waiting to be asked by Washington. The Australian government at the time was intending to extract calculated concessions from the Americans, had that war been ultimately successful. Vietnam has opened up to western businesses since 1986, but Australian companies have been slow at best, to make any inroads into that market, given our still visceral dislike of anything Asian. Australia is the white tribe of Asia, and we have moved from being an outpost of British colonial power to a willing deputy sheriff for the United States. The one country that did assist Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of the war, was the Soviet Union, providing billions in assistance, providing technical experts in rebuilding infrastructure, and helping the people overcome the consequences of the American war: http://rbth.com/multimedia/history/2016/03/16/how-russian-aid-helped-rebuild-post-war-vietnam_575851 Governments can play games, but people have long memories: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/24/pers-m24.html In the 1970s, the Fraser government took a small proportion of Vietnamese refugees, people that the previous Left-leaning Whitlam Labour government dismissed as "f*cking yellow Balts", to quote the colourful language of the late former PM Gough Whitlam. He did have a point there, in that the politics of the new refugees was anti-Communist; nevertheless, Australia did have an obligation to take refugees from a war in which they gleefully participated. The Australian political establishment invoked the supposed threat of the "yellow peril" - an Asian menace now combined with the threat of communism - to win elections. They did not want to acknowledge the damage that imperialist wars caused, and that these wars produce - among other things - an outflow of refugees. Fraser was not generous or warm-hearted, and neither was he motivated by humanitarian considerations. He accepted Vietnamese refugees, over the strident objections of his parliamentary colleagues and racist voting base, because Canberra had dumped the official White Australia policy, and wanted to gain business footholds and markets in the Asian countries, such as Vietnam. He displayed to his Asian counterparts measures which indicated that Australia had well-and-truly abandoned its White Australia immigration policies. Sorry for the long comment. Keep up the great work.


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