Tag Archives: Vietnam defense

Vietnam’s Stark Choice: East or West

For decades, Vietnam has walked a tightrope between East and West, as Communist Party factions jostled over whether to align more with China or more with the US.  China’s latest aggression in the East/South China Sea escalates the skill challenge — and may even threaten the survival of Vietnam’s ruling acrobats.

Although Vietnam has an ugly history with both countries, the pro-China faction has generally prevailed in Vietnam’s government.  Vietnam has evolved as a Chinese-style state-controlled capitalistic autocracy.  China has been allowed to exploit Vietnamese natural resources.  China dominates trade between the two countries.  And China even gets favorable treatment in Vietnam’s schools that teach about the horrors of the American War but gloss over (or don’t mention) the more recent border war of Chinese aggression.

But there’s evidence this week that the dynamic may be changing.  The Chinese embassy in Hanoi was the setting for the largest anti-China protests in recent history, and the Vietnamese government permitted it.  Vietnamese officials worldwide have been loudly protesting China’s contention that it owns the South China and all the resources within it — and Vietnam’s diplomats have been working overtime to line up supporters, including the US.

Meanwhile, China may not be the biggest problem the ruling party faces in Vietnam.  A bigger problem may be its own citizenry: nearly 100 million mostly young, restless, entrepreneurial people who are increasingly enamored of Western culture, products, and political ideas.  Many of them are highly educated, blogging, Facebook-users who are watching closely to see whether their government is capable of handling China.




A Parallel Between Vietnam and Ukraine

One of the consequences of today’s crisis in Eastern Europe is the escalation of anxieties elsewhere in the world.  The situation in Ukraine has reverberated at least two ways in faraway Vietnam: (1) disrupting economic stability, and (2) raising the spectre of armed conflict in Southeast Asia.    

Vietnam’s stock market, world’s best performing in the first part of 2014, has been in a nosedive since the Ukraine crisis.  That’s partly because of conflicting views within Vietnam’s ruling party about economic health of the country; but it also reflects concern about both fragile export markets in Europe and the reliability of Russia as a long-time economic and diplomatic ally.  

Meanwhile,  people who have been watching developments in the South China Sea are wondering if Vietnam is on a path to become China’s Ukraine.  That’s not surprising considering the centuries of Chinese aggression toward its southern neighbor.

The latest Chinese assertiveness is its construction of an oil and gas exploration rig near the Vietnamese coast in South China (or East) Sea territory claimed by both nations.  State-owned PetroVietnam asked China National Offshore Oil Corp. to remove the rig — situated 120 miles East of the Vietnamese coast and within what Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone.  China responded by repeatedly ramming Vietnamese military boats.

Until now, conflict between China and Vietnam in the sea has been limited mostly to verbal sparring over who owns the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and  Chinese harassment of Vietnamese fishing fleets.

The latest dispute highlights the increasing potential for military aggression in Vietnam’s East Sea, as Southeast Asia worries about parallels between Eastern Europe and its own region of 600 million people.

Vietnam’s Out-of-Balance Trade Balance

Vietnam’s love-hate relationship with China has been centuries in the making, and now is embodied by fierce tempers over disputed islands and soaring trade between the two countries.

Vietnam and China announced this month they aim to achieve $100 billion in two-way trade by 2017 and $60 billion in 2015.  Voice of Vietnam reports $36 billion so far this year in China-Vietnam trade — which has increased more than 20% annually in recent years.

There are at least two problems with this phenomenal growth: (1) Vietnamese consumers tend to be skeptical of Chinese products, and (2) The trade is increasingly one-way — China-to Vietnam.  

In the first nine months of this year, 80% of the trade was China exports to Vietnam.  Moreover, Vietnam’s  imports from China increased 25% over the previous year while Vietnam exports to China rose less than 3%.  

The products traded aren’t favorable to Vietnam either.  Vietnam imported more than $1 billion each in machinery, telephones, computers, electronics, cotton, and steel — while Vietnam’s exports to China are mostly raw materials.

Even even though Vietnam is a major exporter of agricultural products (mostly to Europe and the US), China’s domination in Vietnam’s domestic market is growing in export of potatoes, ginger, lemon, grapefruit, pear, apple and garlic.  Because some retailers know their Vietnamese customers don’t trust Chinese products, they’re often disguised as grown in Vietnam, Thailand, the US and Australia.

Overall, Vietnam has achieved a reasonably healthy trade balance in recent years.   How did it accomplish that?  By trade with Europe and the Americas that is as imbalanced as China’s trade with Vietnam — in reverse.  So far this year, for example, the value of US-Vietnam trade was nearly $25 billion, 82% of which was Vietnamese exports to the US.  

The out-of-balance trade balances may not be sustainable.  If nothing else, it creates a diplomatic challenge for Vietnam, which wants the West’s help in fending off China’s most aggressive export of all: military might in the South China Sea.  

Vietnam Maps the World’s Most Dangerous Sea

Vietnam’s legislature  is considering imposing a $2,400 fine on anybody who makes a map of the country that omits two island groups in the East Sea.  That’s because several other countries claim they own some or (in China’s case) all of them.  ASEAN countries are meeting in Brunei this week to try to cool down the dispute.

The hotly contested islands are potentially rich in resources and near key shipping lanes — and that puts them on the world map as a dangerous region that seems to be moving toward a military flash point.

China claims it owns the entire South China Sea and everything in it, including the Spratleys and the Paracels.  Vietnam maps label the islands Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, respectively, and position them in Bien Dong, which (with the proper markings) means East Sea.

Maps have power.  Centuries ago, cartographers gave China the upper hand in claiming the disputed islands when they put the name of its country on maps of Southeast Asia’s Sea; today the name South China Sea dominates globes in the Western world.

Understandably, Vietnam (not to mention the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and other countries) wants to change perception.  But regulating map-making is a clunky way to do so — for a very practical reason:  Including the Spratleys and Parcels makes Vietnam look much smaller than it is — an S-shaped strip in the upper left corner of the page.

The proposed law change, which actually would increase the fine from $50 to $2,500, apparently was inspired by discovery in a hotel last August of 11 smuggled made-in-China maps showing what Vietnam regards as incorrect boundary lines for Vietnam and neighboring China, Laos, and Cambodia.

The map caper would seem trivial it if weren’t emblematic of one of the most serious territorial disputes in the world today.  That’s why it is high on ASEAN agenda this week in Brunei, where ASEAN nations are trying to negotiate a Code of Conduct in the world’s most populous region.

Meanwhile, China is aggressively pursuing its claims — opening the largest Paracel island to tourism; expanding its military presence; and disrupting fishing and natural resource exploration.

Meanwhile, if you want a good map of Vietnam, buy it in Singapore or Taiwan.

Vietnam’s Tired Anti-American Propaganda

CBS started a controversy last weekend when it sent Amazing Race contestants to the B-52 wreckage in Hanoi that celebrates Vietnam’s triumph over US imperialism 40 years ago.  The American Legion said the episode promoted communist propaganda and disrespected Vietnam veterans, especially the men who were shot down in the aircraft decades ago.

But there’s an irony here.  Even as the wreckage memorializes the defeat of the USA, history shows the Americans achieved their central goal there: economic freedom.

CBS showcased one of Vietnam's ugliest sights
CBS showcased one of Vietnam’s ugliest sights

Vietnam is governed by a Communist Party that doesn’t tolerate much criticism, but free enterprise, more than communism, rules the economy.  And the cold-warriors that aimed to stop the spread of communism at the China border prevailed in the end.

Today, Western tourists who visit Vietnam’s many war memorials and museums subject themselves to intense propaganda.  These sites and the high school history books demonize Americans and glorify the Communist victors.  But the message is as obsolete as the wrecked aircraft that serves as its emblem.

In fact, Vietnamese people for the most part worship American culture and technology.  As a whole, they crave the fruits of free enterprize.  Diplomatic, and even military, relations between Vietnam and the US are warm and getting warmer.

I hope Vietnam’s leaders consider getting rid of — or at least toning down — the tired, hostile propaganda the permeates their otherwise spectacularly promising country.  What purpose does it serve to provide CBS with war wreckage as a backdrop when the network should be showcasing world-class art, wildlife, cuisine, temples, commerce, and beaches?

As for CBS, here are places the network could visit to showcase the Vietnam of today — Vietnam slide show — and if the network insists on the war theme, the site pictured below would be more appropriate.  It’s one of scores of cemeteries for Vietnamese war veterans, this one in the central highlands city of Buon Me Thuot.

Powershot 1360


A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

Anybody who plans to do business in Vietnam should read Joel Brinkley’s  column (below) that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.  The Stanford journalism professor published a textbook example of Western centrism, arrogance, and hypocrisy that insults an entire culture.

People who want to invest in Vietnam would be advised to learn from the ugly top_site_international_businessAmericanism expressed by Professor Brinkley, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Cambodia — but made the rookie mistake of generalizing about Vietnam  based on a brief tour there over the winter holidays.  That isn’t unusual for some Americans, many of whom still have archaic notions about Vietnam left over from the 1970s.

The most absurd and pathetic of Brinkley’s assertions is that “Vietnam has always been an aggressive country” because its people eat meat.  Actually,  Vietnam’s history is mostly about defending itself from the aggression of China and others, including Americans.

As penance for his mis-characterized aggression, the professor should be required to read every page of the new book: “Kill Anything That Moves,” which documents America’s systemic culture of war crime during the Vietnam War.

Brinkley also links Vietnamese consumption of birds, rodents, and canines to the demise of tigers, rhinos and elephants in their country.  It’s true Vietnamese eat birds (so do Americans) and rodents, but rice-eating Vietnamese mice in the field are not quite the same as rats in San Francisco’s sewers.  And, yes, dogs can be food as well as pets in Vietnam, but that is about cultural differences, not environmental conservation.

The column contains elements of truth, and even worthwhile information:  Protection of wildlife IS an important issue in Vietnam; perhaps Vietnamese DO tend to consume more protein than many of their Cambodian neighbors (which may imply more about the nutritional values of the workforces than anybody’s propensity for aggression).

But not much in the column rings true to me after my travels in Vietnam over the years.  An award-winning journalist and professor should know that a few days on a tour aren’t enough to generalize about a people. especially a people that was systematically dehumanized by the professor’s “people” not long ago.  And the idea that Vietnamese are aggressive, written from the perspective of an American, is just silly.

Unfortunately, the columnist exacerbated his cultural ignorance by responding to criticism of his column by insisting that meat makes people aggressive and, in the process, insulting Cambodians and Laotians.  He wrote: “Eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else. After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today. In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent. That means they grow up short and not so smart. Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese? I think so.”

For investors interested in avoiding the mistakes of a Pulitzer Prize winner who needs an editor, here is the column from the web site of the Chicago Tribune, which to its credit issued an apology for publishing it:

You don’t have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where’d they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone — though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world’s greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities — like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale — their fur removed but otherwise intact — ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, “are perilously close to extinction” — all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state’s origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries — two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state’s aggressive tendencies — and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It’s considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn’t eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You’ll actually bring on bad luck.

The Chicago Tribune’s apology:

“Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards. The column has provoked a highly critical response from readers since its release.

“TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley’s column that moved Jan. 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future.”

Why Vietnam’s Communists Invite Western Scorn

Just when Vietnam’s fragile economy seems to be healing and once again enticing global investors, one of its courts this week sentences 14 “subversive” writers to prison.  Predictably, the scorn of human rights groups and Western media rains on the Communist Party that runs the country.

Why does an otherwise media-saavy government subject itself to international outrage over human rights?  The obvious answers are (1) The Party is unwilling to tolerate dissension, and (2) Vietnam invites global attention to send the message to would-be subversives.

The reality is more complicated, rooted in history.  To understand what’s going on with civil rights in Vietnam, it helps to remember the mood in America right after 911.

The defendants convicted in Vietnam this week were arrested in 2011 when the government linked them to a Viet Tan, a group led by Vietnamese Americans in California.  Vietnamese authorities contend the group aims to overthrow the Vietnam government.

Human Rights Watch says Viet Tan isn’t a terrorist organization but has evolved from an anti-communist resistance movement into a group committed to peaceful political reform, democracy and human rights in Vietnam.

Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung says his government is “regularly challenged by conspiracies to spark sociopolitical instability and violate our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

That perception helps explain Vietnam’s increasing crackdown on dissidents, including the 2011 conviction of well-known poet Cu Huy Ha Vu, the 2012 sentencing of two Catholic activists for distributing “antigovernment leaflets,” and long prison terms recently given three prominent bloggers.

No doubt this is happening in part because the current regime feels threatened and wants to stay in power.

Even so, the threat that Vietnam’s rulers perceive is not paranoia.  It is real.  Of two million overseas Vietnamese, most left their homeland to get away from Vietnam’s Communists.  Most are now Vietnamese Americans.  For some, the Vietnam War has not yet ended.  That’s why the Communist Party, in a sense, governs as if it is still at war.

Countries at war, including Western democracies, are less tolerant of free speech, religion and assembly.  They are oppressive.  Like Vietnam today, the government — and so far most of Vietnam’s citizens — value stability more than liberty.  That’s because Vietnam was at war for centuries, almost always defending itself against intruders such as China, France, and — from Hanoi’s perspective — the US.  As a people, the Vietnamese are tired of war.  They want stability.

To maintain political and social stability, Vietnam has been willing to outrage Human Rights Watch and readers of the New York Times.  And doubtless Hanoi would gladly debate which countries have more political prisoners today.