Asia's Week: Vietnam Oughta Pivot to a World's Fair
5/30/2014 @ 6:50PM
If the regional tensions in East Asia can be reduced to something as child-like as choosing up teams on the schoolyard, Vietnam is the kid awkwardly not picked and therefore prone to get picked on.
Whatever comes of the country’s standoff with China over offshore resources and probably deeper grievances, maybe it will serve to hasten a repositioning more in line with the non-Communist states in what is increasingly Vietnam’s trade orbit, supplanting the current Chinese commercial influence. That could ultimately entail both political and cultural shifts.
But first, an update of where things stand. The Chinese oil rig off the Paracel Islands is still a rub. It symbolizes not only treasure but honor. Ships continue to circle.
Vietnam’s defense minister, a Politburo member, attended this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue, a Singapore exercise in strategic posturing that this year was “highlighted” by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe giving a keynote that rankled the Chinese delegation. Many, at least on the non-Chinese side, argue that collective defense arrangements in Asia would be helpful in securing peace. Of course, they can also be triggers for wider war. In any case, Vietnam would need to be part of some combine or alliance other than toothless ASEAN for that to occur, and that will be something new for Hanoi.
(Some say it can stand to go alone. The BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley argued in Japan’s Nikkei this week [behind a paywall] that Vietnam’s “formidable fighting spirit” could prevail against China. Possibly–it has before.)
The Vietnamese economy’s recent struggles are also part of the picture. As noted when it happened earlier this month, the destruction of factories owned and managed primarily by ethnic Chinese in the south of Vietnam had a spark in the maritime push-and-shove but was fueled by unhappiness over the relative plight of the domestic laboring class. Although Vietnam is often a picture of bustling commerce, it is beset with various lapses in investment and legal structure that retard growth of a large middle class. Among other things, it’s never had a Deng Xiaoping who would (supposedly) say, “To get rich is glorious.” It still hews to a more guarded Communist-nationalist message.
To tool around the streets of even the former Saigon, onetime hub of the U.S. presence, is to be struck by how many institutions are still celebrating a revolutionary military struggle (and not one against China) even as the mass private quest for modest affluence is left to the billboard barkers. The War Remnants Museum in what is now Ho Chi Minh City is worth a visit for capturing a fateful period in time, or at least one perspective of it, but how about sponsoring an exposition that acclaims the technology and choice of the modern marketplace? If, indeed, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam would like to be part of that universe.
Others in Southeast and South Asia are making choices to be part of such a world–India now has affirmed it, the Philippines earlier renewed the vow–and Thailand is hearing a military junta say it wants to avoid falling out from such company. In many of these places (Myanmar, too?) there is a workforce that will compete with employable, youthful Vietnamese.
It is too much to expect liberal openings under duress, so any immediate call to arms to resist China would not be a time for good policymaking (or much else positive). But a longer, more strategic standoff could be the basis for a newer Vietnam, one that better ensures the prosperity that in turn would undergird enhanced security. Potential partners await.