In formally lifting Washington’s embargo on the sale of weapons to Vietnam, U.S. President Barack Obama has affirmed that this action should not be seen as being aimed at any other state. Yet the subtext of Obama’s visit is clear: it is an implicit signaling of U.S. willingness to form a regional balance of power against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In recent years, the PRC has engaged in extensive land reclamation in the South China Sea and the deployment of surface-to-air missiles to present the East Asian region with the fait accompli of Chinese sovereignty. Such developments are indicative of Chinese plans to implement an Anti-Area/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy aimed at preventing foreign navies (in other words, the United States) from accessing the South China Sea.
Chinese actions have been interpreted by both Vietnam and the United States (along with numerous other states in the East Asian region) as evidence of Beijing’s intention to ride roughshod over the protests of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries in turning the South China Sea into a Chinese sphere of influence. Such an outcome would not only be tantamount to Chinese hegemony over Southeast Asia, but also enable China to challenge the freedom of navigation in the East Asian region. Small wonder, then, that Obama, in a speech in Hanoi, affirmed that “Nations are sovereign and no matter how large or small a nation may be, its territory should be respected … big nations should not bully smaller ones.”
Yet, a full U.S.-Vietnam alliance is not foreseeable at present; if anything, it may even prove counter-productive, for three reasons.
The first of these concerns the technical interoperability of U.S.-produced weapons systems. The Vietnamese military remains equipped primarily with Soviet-produced aircraft and vessels dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, since the 1980s, the U.S. defense industry has begun to embrace the information-based Revolution in Military Affairs, integrating the internet into its command infrastructure. This in turn means that much of the available weaponry from U.S. defense corporations is either not modern enough to counter the next generation of Chinese weaponry (the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 fighters are due for replacement), or is too technically advanced for Vietnam to master at short notice, and too costly to acquire in significant numbers (the F-35 stealth fighters and littoral combat ships incorporate technology at least a generation ahead of Vietnam’s existing arsenal, and also carry price tags that have caused problems for the Pentagon itself).
Secondly, both Obama and his successor should bear in mind that the image of U.S. alignment with Vietnam may have the inadvertent effect of emboldening local claimants to the South China Sea in the belief that China will back down in the face of U.S. resolve. Although such an outcome is not likely in the case of Vietnam, the wild card in this game is the Philippines. Successive administrations in Manila have demonstrated geostrategic shortsightedness, most notably in 1991 when the Philippine Senate refused to extend the U.S. lease on Subic Bay Naval Base.
With the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the country’s next president, such unpredictability on the part of Manila is likely to increase. As mayor of Davao, Duterte established a reputation for bluster, heated rhetoric, and populism – a combustible mix of qualities insofar as level-headed statesmanship is required. It is of particular concern that Duterte has proposed direct bilateral talks with China over the South China Sea. Duterte’s position is puzzling, given that a bilateral approach would enable China to intimidate ASEAN members piecemeal – might he unilaterally break from ASEAN unity to forge a separate deal with Beijing in exchange for Chinese infrastructural aid? Or might the Philippine leader assume that a combination of his trademark bluster and U.S. alignment in the South China Sea will cause China to back down? Either way, Duterte’s unpredictability, and the extent to which the issue of the South China Sea remains a rallying point for nationalism in the Philippines, underscores the danger of miscalculation in the South China, particularly if too much is read into the meaning of the U.S. rapprochement with Vietnam.
It would be prudent for the White House to ensure that its alignment with Vietnam is not taken as a carte blanche for other claimants in the South China Sea to press forward too enthusiastically in their territorial claims in the mistaken belief that the United States will bail them out if faced with an aggressive Chinese response.
A third factor to be taken in consideration is the likely response from China itself. China’s continued economic and military growth appears set to continue for the foreseeable future. Herein, the prospect of a full Vietnamese alliance with the United States may enrage nationalist sentiment in Beijing to the extent that the PRC increases the extent of economic retaliation and military intimidation against Vietnam (and possibly the Philippines). Such circumstances posit the likelihood of causing regional tensions to escalate as a vicious circle, to the extent that any one party sees continued acquiescence as being tantamount to surrender. Under such circumstances, war may be seen as the least-bad outcome.
How might such an outcome be averted? Several things will be necessary. It is imperative that, even whilst underlining U.S. interest in stability in the South China Sea, Obama and his successor acknowledge China’s underlying fears over the security of its vulnerable sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which China’s energy supplies and its exports are transported. Mere rhetorical platitudes concerning the freedom of navigation for all states is not enough – the extent of China’s paranoia over its SLOCs has found a high level of resonance in China, from the grassroots to the military and policymaking elite.
Thus, even whilst seeking rapprochement with Vietnam, it will be necessary for the United States to concurrently place a limit on the type of arms it is willing to sell to Vietnam. Selling Vietnam high-end weaponry such as stealth-capable fighters and warships would not only be beyond the technical ability of the military of Vietnam to master at short notice, but also be an unnecessary provocation to China that would likely hinder the already complicated task of achieving a peaceful resolution to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Finally, it will also be necessary for the White House to affirm that its alignment with Vietnam should not in any way be seen as a carte blanche for the regional claimants to the South China Sea to do as they please in pressing their case in the expectation of U.S. military support in a conflict against China.
Dr. Er-Win Tan is a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya.