Ties Strengthening Between Vietnam And The U.S.

Read Kaplan's Piece, 'The Vietnam Solution'

The strong relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam may seem surprising, given the context of the Vietnam war. But The Atlantic's Robert Kaplan says it's key to balancing China's rise. To many in Vietnam, the threat China poses trumps the wounds of what they remember as the American War.

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Vietnam this week in an effort to strengthen ties with government officials and re-assert U.S. power in the Western Pacific. Vietnam and several of its neighbors have turned to the U.S. to fend off the ambitions of China, especially China's claim to the South China Sea. Oil tankers critical to the economies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China sail through those waters, and vast deposits of oil and gas lie beneath them. Given our history in Vietnam, Hanoi's interest in military cooperation with Washington may baffle many Americans, but Atlantic national correspondent Robert D. Kaplan explains that things look different from a Vietnamese perspective.

If you've been following this story and have questions for Robert Kaplan, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Robert D. Kaplan's piece, "The Vietnam Solution" appears in this month's issue of The Atlantic. He's chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor Global Intelligence and joins us now from that company's headquarters in Austin. Nice to have you with us today.

ROBERT KAPLAN: It's a pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you say you've heard from many Vietnamese that the South China Sea is a lot more than just a territorial dispute.

KAPLAN: Yes. For basically two millennia, the Vietnamese have faced off against China. For the first millennia, the Chinese veritably occupied Vietnam. It was basically a province of various Chinese dynasties. And in the last thousand years there's been tension and conflict between Vietnam and China. The Vietnamese always tell me, we only fought one war with you Americans, but we fought dozens with China. And now that we've settled our land borders, the South China Sea looms as blue national soil, as blue territorial soil. And that's how the Chinese look at it too.

So the Chinese-Vietnamese tension has progressed from being a land-bound tension as exhibited in the 1979 war between Vietnam and China. Remember, the last war in Vietnam was not the American War that we fought. It was the war between the Chinese and the Vietnamese in 1979, four years after we - the helicopters left the U.S. embassy in Saigon. But now the struggle has moved out to sea because, Neal, as you said, there may be - there is dispute about this, but there may be significant deposits of oil and natural gas beneath the seabed of the South China Sea.

CONAN: As you mentioned in the article, China and Vietnam - well, they share waters, other waters, the Gulf of Tonkin, a place that many students of Vietnam War history will remember. But nevertheless, they were able to settle their disagreements there. They basically said let's go 50-50.

KAPLAN: Yes. Basically, that's what they did, and this shows the other side of the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship, which is that both countries are governed by communist parties that are practicing capitalist policies. So they have that in common. And the Gulf of Tonkin was a way for both communist parties to show that we can deal with this without the Americans. We can, you know, split this up 50-50. But the larger - the larger, you know, basin of the South China Sea, that's up for dispute.

Remember, it's not just Vietnam and China that are contesting waters in the South China Sea. It's the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, et cetera, all - you know, each with overlapping claims. The claims of one are not the claims of the other. And I forgot to mention Taiwan, because every claim that China makes Taiwan claims because Taiwan claims to be the real China, not the party in power in Beijing.

CONAN: And China claims pretty much all of the South China Sea.

KAPLAN: Yes. China claims most of the South China Sea. It has what is called a nine-dash line that basically extends from the Chinese mainland south all the way to the mainland of Malaysia - excuse me - and Indonesia and all the way up around up through the Philippines. So the whole central portion of the sea is claimed by China. Now, the other countries claim this is a ridiculous claim that China is making, that it does not conform to the Law of the Sea Treaty. The Law of the Sea is really about land not sea. It's like you get 200 miles off your coast or your continental shelf outward. The Law of the Sea would not give China this amount of water. China claims that the Law of the Sea only goes back to the 1980s, whereas China's claim goes back centuries and it's historic.

CONAN: So this involves nationalism, it involves historical disputes, and it involves a great deal. But it's this context in which Vietnam and those other states that you referred to have been turning more and more to the United States as a balancing power.

KAPLAN: Yes. Now, remember, Vietnam is the top dog in this rivalry against China because the Philippines is a weak state with weak institutions. The Chinese don't really respect it much. Brunei is tiny. Malaysia's claims are much more - Malaysia has a much more balanced, even, you know, a friendly relationship with China. It's Vietnam that really drives the Chinese crazy. Vietnam is the whole western seaboard of the South China Sea. And the Vietnamese, they don't love the Americans, but they can use the Americans as a balancing power, a lever against China.

Therefore, the Vietnamese are refurbishing the Cam Ranh Bay naval facility in order officially to invite in the navies of the world to pay port visits. That's the official line. The unofficial line is the Vietnamese would like to see more U.S. warships in the region off Cam Ranh Bay. The Vietnamese have long ago gotten over their dislike of the Americans, which - remember, as I write in my piece, that the young Vietnamese diplomats that I met in Hanoi recently are further removed from the Vietnam War, the American War as they call it, than the American baby boomers, you know, in the 1960s or so were removed from World War II.

CONAN: And so in this context, the United States, well, it has no dog in the South China Sea fight, no claim there itself. But Secretary Clinton, last year at a meeting of the various interested states, said the United States supports a negotiation that would involve all of the parties, which caused some Chinese generals to gag on their soup.

KAPLAN: Yes. Yeah, exactly. And the reason is the Chinese do not want all of the parties cooperating on a joint strategy. In other words, have them all gang up against China. China's strategy is to deal with each country bilaterally, divide and conquer, and literally wait as the Chinese navy and air force get stronger and stronger relative to the navies and air forces of Vietnam and the other countries as each year passes. So that over 10 years or 20 years, China becomes the dominant power in the region, and the Americans do not seem to be willing to let that happen because the South China Sea is really where all this - the great sea lines of communication of the world coalesce, you know, in terms of bringing of oil, and natural gas, and energy and other resources from the Middle East where the energy is to Northeast Asia, South Korea, Japan and coastal China where the customers are.

CONAN: And so in this context, Vietnam would have to be putting a great deal of trust in, well, the United States, which has proven problematical in the past?

KAPLAN: Yes. It proved problematic in the 1950s through 1970s, but it doesn't seemed problematic today. The Vietnamese approach the United States from a real pragmatic, real politic point of view. And keep this in mind, precisely because the Vietnamese defeated the Americans in a war, the Vietnamese have no chips on their shoulder, no axes to grind, no colonial or post-colonial grudges or hang ups, and they can deal with the Americans as equals from a psychological point of view. They don't have to make apologies to their neighbors for cozying up to the Americans.

CONAN: They are also, in some ways, mirror images of China. There's a lot of the economic development that is rapidly happening in China. That's happening in Vietnam, too, yet the same kind of contradictions that we see in China: No rule of law, a Communist Party that has virtually abandoned communism and no intellectual freedom. Well, those are mirrored in Vietnam as well.

KAPLAN: Yes, that's absolutely true. Keep something else in mind. Vietnam can't help its geography. It's got a long land border with China. It knows that the Americans are half a world away, and the Vietnamese can only move so close to the Americans without angering China too much. So it's a very delicate balance that the Vietnamese have to play, and the Americans too. The Vietnamese-American relationship cannot get so warm that it really (technical difficulty) China, because then the Chinese would have all these arrows in their quiver against the Vietnamese.

And the last thing the Americans want is to have their equities with China, you know, trade negotiations, currency negotiations, you name it, in danger because America made the mistake of moving too close to Vietnam. Ironically, you know, the thing that America has to watch out for today is not getting close to Vietnam - we're already close in a de facto sense - but becoming too close so that we really, you know, anger Beijing.

CONAN: We're talking Robert D. Kaplan about his piece in The Atlantic, "The Vietnam Solution." There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. In the world, as it exist today, mirror images - you say, the Vietnamese are not concerned, really, about Arab Spring-type changes but more about the example of Tiananmen Square, now 32 years ago.

KAPLAN: Yes. That's right. Tiananmen Square was a time of economic ferment in China, where it wasn't just students who was upset. It was various classes in Chinese society. And the Vietnamese communist regime - remember, it still is a communist regime, or at least an authoritarian one - is very up, you know, is very nervous. Vietnam has a high degree of corruption, of nepotism, of inflation. No, that's been coming down a little bit recently. So that - the regime is nervous in Vietnam, and it has essentially the same challenge that the regime in Beijing has.

Communism is no longer a philosophical organizing principle of the government. Therefore, the government has to buy or bribe the people to like the government by delivering significant high economic growth rates each year. You know, the government is only tolerated so long as it can succeed, and this is, you know, this is an anxiety that Hanoi - the people in power in Hanoi share with the people in power in Beijing.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Andy: Please comment on the roles of Japan and Korea. The Japanese, I wouldn't think, will sit idly by and watch China build a blue-water navy.

KAPLAN: Well, that, you know, we basically disparaged Japan in recent years, saying it's got a stagnant economy, they've got a quasi-pacifistic outlook towards their military. But Japan's so-called stagnant economy is still the largest - third largest economy in the world. It has a very capable military. It's got four times as many warships as the British Royal Navy, great niche capacities and special forces and diesel-electric - the latest diesel-electric submarines. And Japan's lifeline for energy is the South China Sea. So Japan is very nervous about a China that is increasing its air and naval capabilities by leaps and bounds.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get a caller in. This is Dave, Dave on the line with us from Denver.

DAVE: Thank you very much for taking the call. My question is where does SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization fit in the emerging calculus with regard to the disposition of the South China Sea and its resources? And a follow-up is could this issue, with regard to the South China Sea, prove a tipping point for China making an earnest effort to retake Taiwan?

KAPLAN: OK. On the first question, the issue is really ASEAN, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, and ASEAN is nowhere near being as strong as the European Union with all of Europe's problems. But ASEAN has been - has becoming more of a factor as each year goes along, and the Chinese would like to prevent ASEAN from getting involved more deeply in South China Sea issues because again, the Chinese don't want to deal with all of these littoral countries as a group. It wants to deal with them separately in a divide-and-conquer strategy.

Taiwan is sort of a cork in the bottle at the top of the South China Sea. It connects the, you know, the conflict systems of the South China Sea with that of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Taiwan and China, you know, have conflicting claims for of all the islands in the South China Sea. Remember, Taiwan also adheres to the cow's tongue or the nine-dash line. The only difference it has with Beijing is it claims that it's the real government of all of China, not Beijing.

Interestingly, I was just recently out to the Pratas Island in the South China Sea, which is occupied by Taiwan, though mainland China claims it. And this will give you a picture of what this is really all about. The Pratas Island is the largest island in the South China Sea, but it's less than two miles long and only half a mile wide including a lagoon.

It's basically a runway a few inches above water with a few buildings clustered around it. And this is what people are fighting over or, you know, or have a rivalry over, these essentially runways in the middle of the ocean because near these runway - these runways give Taiwan or anyone else power projection capability.

And because there maybe oil and natural gas around these regions, these claims really get contentious. But I don't see that China will allow South China Sea issues to make it more truculent in any - in terms of an invasion of Taiwan.

CONAN: Robert Kaplan, thanks very much for your time. Tomorrow, Christopher Buckley will be with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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