For at least two generations of Americans, Vietnam will always be the place where they fought a futile and devastating war that split the US in ways from which it has never fully healed. But as Robert Kaplan points out in the Atlantic, the Vietnamese themselves have a much longer historical perspective – and much bigger fish to fry.
Kaplan notes that while Vietnam’s “American War” lasted about 10 years, the Vietnamese have endured 17 invasions by China over the past millennium, most recently in 1979. And as its giant neighbour to the north grows increasingly assertive in the region, Vietnam’s location – on the eastern edge of the strategically important South China Sea – has the emerging power looking for allies.
Vietnamese are now prying their way into the developed world – for the sake of themselves and their families, obviously, but also to preserve their independence against an equally dynamic China. And as it has been since antiquity, Hanoi remains a city of nervous political calculations, the price of being a potential middle-level power – the 13th-most-populous nation in the world – with a long coastline at the crossroads of major maritime routes and close to immense offshore energy deposits. On my visit there last year, I found a country seized not only with the imperative of economic development but also with the challenge of finding a modus vivendi with its age-old neighbour and hegemon – a challenge that it increasingly looks to the United States, its onetime adversary, to help meet.
The current American administration has declared its intention to expand its influence – and military power – to the Pacific. The United States, Kaplan says, "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."
Still, Kaplan notes that Vietnam has deep cultural ties with China, as well as strong economic ones. While the US is Vietnam's top export market, it buys more goods from China than from anyone else. And while suspicious of Chinese motives, the Vietnamese also quote a proverb – “A distant water can’t put out a nearby fire” – that shows they can't place all their trust in an American alliance, either.
Further reading: US defence secretary Leon Panetta is in Vietnam this week. It's a good time to read Kaplan's article in its entirety for a thought-provoking perspective on what Vietnam and the US mean to each other more than 35 years after the fall of Saigon.