Hanoi plays America for a sucker: the China card.

By Nguyen-Khoa Thai Anh

While the state visit of President Nguyen Minh Triet – the first official trip to America by a leader of Communist Vietnam — is controversial, marred with protests and critical questioning by senior U.S. lawmakers regarding his government recent arrests of human rights and democracy activists, the realpolitik behind the way America coddles Hanoi –the China factor – seems to escape most press radar screens. But Hanoi is none the wiser.

It seems America geopolitics trumps even its very founding tenets of democracy and freedom in favor of the containment of China. Yet for a viable and long-term solution, Washington must not forget a democratic Vietnam based on popular support is more suited for the stability of Southeast Asia than a declining police state with oppressive turmoil.

At a time when communist Vietnam can no longer rely on brutal oppression to keep the lid on its people legitimate aspiration nor count on its hallowed and Pyrrhic victory against the United States (and France) as the mandate to rule in lieu of popular support, the United States is trying to prop up the Hanoi regime militarily as buffer against an expanding China. Aware of this American courtship, Hanoi is playing the China card to the hilt.

This March, after his Washington meeting with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem made a detour to Beijing before returning home. Likewise, President Nguyen Minh Triet also paid a visit to Beijing before making this historic trip to America.

This did not go unnoticed by Washington, where the off-and-on again state visit by President Triet was rumored not to take place or even reduce to an unofficial visit at Blair House, while President Bush Oval Office meeting with 4 leaders of the Vietnamese human rights and democracy groups followed by another NSA meeting with the more inclusive democracy group after Triet’s visit serve as a reminder to Hanoi not to play America as second fiddle.

Yet the Bush administration should be reminded that Hanoi tight rope act is a form of suzerainty-tributary kowtow relationship of the 21st century. During the American war, Hanoi often played a skillful balancing act between China and the Soviet Union to her advantage, but that big counterbalance is gone after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 until the U.S. steps in.

May 2006, in a meeting with Hanoi leaders, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick stressed the importance of cooperation between the two countries, particularly with regards to regional security (reads China expansion threat). In June 2006, following his predecessor and the four-year running where the U.S. Navy made Vietnam its port of call, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with his counterpart Pham van Tra when the two sides reaffirmed the International Military Education and Training pact.

The United States, certainly, is keen on Vietnam tumultuous history with China. In 1974, China and South Vietnam fought a naval battle over the Spratley island chain. February 1979, China invaded several Vietnam northern border provinces to teach Hanoi a lesson after the latter strengthened its ties with the Soviet Union, and occupied Laos and Kampuchea. From 1984 to 1988, Vietnam had border clashes with China on land and in the South Sea, which resulted in the ceding of 800 square kilometers of territory by Vietnam to China. January 2005, after the redraw of maritime demarcation in the Tonkin Gulf, Chinese navy attacked and killed 9 Vietnamese fishermen.

The loss of Vietnamese land and sea to China was the subject of journalist Nguyen Vu Binh’s essay and arrest in 2003 when he revealed Hanoi shady deal in a published article. Binh then Le Quoc Quan, a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy scholarship, were released as bargaining chips just before Triet’s trip to America.

In the final analysis, Hanoi overture with America and its high-wire act between its ideological Beijing soul mate and Washington demonstrate politically that it needs America more than vice-versa.

Thus President Bush should know that helping Hanoi forge ahead with the free-wheeling market economy (in the socialist orientation) as a detraction and a cure-all for a society that has long been oppressed, kept in backwardness, deprived of material and spiritual comfort is no sure bet for a lasting legacy.

Cultivating the progressive democrats within and without the Party is. A democratic Vietnam within the framework of ASEAN will provide a fitting counter balance in Southeast Asia that serves its people interest as well as the U.S.’s.

Courtesy of New America Media.

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