South China Sea will determine how close Hanoi gets to Washington

By Han Feng Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-5 19:33:05

The Global Post recently published an article entitled "The US hasn't armed a communist nation in ages. That could soon change." Arguing after Washington partly lifted its ban on arms sales to Vietnam, the article said that some US officials are pushing to completely lift the embargo.

This is not a surprising voice, but a controversial one. The debate over lifting the arms ban to Vietnam has been going on for quite some time in the US, dating back to the similar tough choice over its establishment of diplomatic relationship with the country.

On the one hand, Vietnam is a socialist nation. On the other, it is a major country in Southeast Asia. Despite strong objections at first, Washington eventually put ideological divergences behind it, and established a diplomatic relationship with Hanoi under certain conditions.

Decades later, Vietnam has become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), restored its national powers, and has been developing rapidly. Especially when it comes to the South China Sea issue, it is without doubt a useful card for the US to play.

Washington's rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy is in need of Vietnam. Therefore, the US might once again down play Hanoi's identity as a socialist country, and adopt a more realistic attitude for its own major power relationships and regional strategies.

In light of it, when the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the country in June last year, he pledged $18 million for Vietnam to buy patrol boats and beef up its coast guard. The two countries have also signed a Joint Vision Statement to promote their future military cooperation.

Five months later, Washington announced it had allocated nearly $20 million to boost "Vietnam's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities at sea," according to the Global Post.

Yet this is not a fairy tale come true for Hanoi.

Although the nation was reunified in 1976, a palpable north-south divergence still exists in Vietnam. The former South Vietnam used to have a close relationship with the US, and many Vietnamese-Americans today still wish to see Washington bring a peaceful evolution to Hanoi as soon as possible.

Vietnam, on the one hand, is willing to improve its ties with the White House for a higher global status and a brighter regional image. On the other, however, it is worried over a possible US-backed peaceful evolution. The more it gets from Washington, the more pressures it will face in the future. Vietnam is well aware of that.

In terms of regional affairs, Hanoi is also clear that it is impossible to counterbalance one country by entirely depending on another. This is the lesson it has already learned from history.

Joining ASEAN is a signal of such mentality. Other than that, as a member of organization, Vietnam has to consider if other ASEAN members would feel threatened when it strengthens military cooperation with the US.

On that score, despite the fact that Washington is obviously attempting to utilize Vietnam over the issues of territorial disputes, Hanoi won't meet the US' needs at the cost of jeopardizing its own national interests.

Future US-Vietnam ties will hence rely on the development of the South China Sea issue. Only an extreme clash between Beijing and Hanoi could stimulate the latter to seek closer military relationship with the US. Otherwise, as long as the South China Sea issue can run smoothly under the framework of both China and ASEAN, there will be no push for Hanoi to boost its ties with Washington militarily, even some in the US are pushing to completely lift the ban on arms sales.

The author is a professor and deputy director-general at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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