Beware of the North Wind

By Sidney Tran

            Some observers of Vietnam have coined her predicament as the tyranny of geography that Vietnam’s security concerns have always emanated from the north.  It is the unfortunate accident of history that Vietnam has existed beside her giant neighbor, China.  So much of China’s culture, tradition, values, and, unfortunately, politics have influenced Vietnam’s history.  China is now awakening from a self-induced slumber.  A condition Napoleon had once observed as a sleeping giant.  Times are a changing.  As a result of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of pragmatism over ideology, China is on a trajectory of economic and political dominance in Asia.  In addition, China has a fifth of humankind in her contiguous territory.  That in itself is enough to enthrall anyone about the immensity of her size.  All of Vietnam is no more than an average Chinese province.  In order for Vietnam to maintain her independence, she must be able to engage the world and use all of the resources that the outside world can offer.  This in effect will help to enable Vietnam’s own capabilities.  The main resource of a country is ultimately rests on her people.  A country with a broad consensus of nationhood is the most effective nation state.  Tragically, this reality about Vietnam has not been realized.  Present day Vietnam has the unenviable position of belonging to the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states such as Cuba, North Korea and, of course, China.  The main problem for Vietnam will face in the coming years is to manage the rise of Chinese hegemony.

            Many observers of international relations have compared China’s rise in the international stage to that of the rise of Germany and Japan in the 20th Century.  When these two countries emerged from weakness and obscurity, it had the unintended effect of changing the power dynamics of the world order.  In some ways, China’s rise will send ripples throughout the world like what had happened when Germany and Japan rose to power.  Looking at the past, some observers have noted that authoritarian countries that have emerged from weakness, the rise will mean a future of conflict and aggression.  For Vietnam, this future could be fatal.  I cannot think of nothing worse than having a communist dictatorship flaunting her might in the coming future.  In order to manage this phenomenon, the political leadership in Hanoi must decide whether Vietnam should remain as a de-facto, vassal communist state to China or forge her own destiny by changing her political landscape. 

            Present day Vietnam does not have a big power protector like the Soviet Union to rely on in order to counter China’s immense size anymore.  Vietnam will have to formulate a foreign policy that reflects this new reality.  Currently, the political landscape in Vietnam remains mired in the past.  Political conditions in Vietnam have thawed recently but she is still an unsavory, anachronistic, one-party state that brooks no opposition or dissent.  It will be interesting to see what the next thirty years will bring for the countries on the Pacific Rim.  Because Vietnam exists in a tough neighborhood with a giant next door, she will have to align herself with other countries in the region to enhance her power factor.  In this neighborhood there are vibrant democracies that exist such as Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Australia.  When one compares the state of development that these countries’ possess, Vietnam looks rather impotent.  Except for India and Indonesia which are still considered low-income countries, the rest of the pack are much more developed by every social and economic indicators that exist. 

In essence, present day Vietnam is on the losing side of history.  It is free market, capitalist democracy that has triumphed in Asia rather than the centrally-planned, Marxist dictatorship.  In no other realm has this been clearly illustrated than in economics.  The productive power and creativity of capitalist Asian countries have demonstratively destroyed the fallacies of communism.  In some ways the people who fought for South Vietnam have been vindicated.  It is purely a conjecture to extrapolate what South Vietnam could have been if she had remained free from communism.  It would seem plausible though she would have adopted some of the same free market policies that were implemented in South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and et al. which proved to be quite successful.  By the mid-1970’s the public investment in mass education in South Vietnam had grown tremendously compared to the French era.  Tertiary educational institutions in South Vietnam were comparable to the rest of the region and a large number of Vietnamese students were studying at some of the best Western universities in the world.  Thus, the foundation for a free and prosperous Vietnam was there given that her security problem with Hanoi could be solved.   

The trajectory of South Vietnam’s development is one of those what if’s in history that no one really knows.  Nonetheless, a free, industrialized, and democratic Vietnam would have been a more viable alternative to counter an emerging China than an economic pygmy in the form of a Communist Vietnam.  The GDP per capita of a unified Vietnam is now only equal to what South Vietnam’s GDP per capita was in the mid-70’s.  It took the political leadership in Hanoi three decades to accomplish this amazing feat!  Imagine where South Vietnam’s economic and political development could have been by now if she had been allowed to take her rightful place among the Asian tigers. 

  In essence, the revolutionary generation of Ho Chi Minh’s disciples has dragged Vietnam into the wilderness for over thirty years.  They have wasted a whole generation of men through useless wars and vindictive policies toward the South.  Hanoi’s own leadership does not even know or can answer what the sacrifice was for?  If it was for the greater glory of socialism, then this premise is nothing more than a chimera of their own making.  The consequences for the abuse of power are enormous.  One day there will be an honest reassessment and reflection for this national trauma.  In hindsight, it does seem logical that the Republic of Vietnam given all of her faults and shortcomings could have developed into a strong, self-sufficient, technologically advanced state that is the reality of South Korea and Taiwan today.                      

The recent success that Vietnam has had to date only reflects the rudimentary level of industrialization that Vietnam has achieved thus far.  It reflects more of raw brawn power than of brain power industrialization.  This sort of industrialization will only be successful after a certain point before it becomes ineffective.  Present day Vietnam still does not have one internationally recognized university while China has several and is developing more.  It seems more and more each day that the men in power in Hanoi are cautiously observing what Beijing is doing first before implementing similar reforms in Vietnam.  Once again the political leadership in Vietnam is following in China’s footsteps for inspiration instead of determining her own course.  It is amazing how history repeats itself!  In order to be truly independent Hanoi needs to wean herself away from the Sino-centric worldview.  China will always act on behalf of her own self-interest not in Vietnam’s interest.  The sooner the old men in Hanoi understand this, the better that Vietnam’s future fate will be.  Simply, time has passed the old men in the politburo by.  The rigid, inflexible groupthink inside the CPV does not bode well for the future if no new voices inside the Vietnamese polity are heard.  It is about time Hanoi abandons its ideological blinders and embrace policies that will unify a country based on national aspirations rather than preserving the status quo.  There is too much at stake to be blinded by outdated, antiquated ideology that does nothing for the present-day reality. 

            Some experts have opined that the century of the future is already here and it is a Pacific Century or an Asian Renaissance.  Currently, trans-Pacific trade is already three times as large as trans-Atlantic trade.  The most advanced countries in the Pacific Rim are vibrant democracies with a strong free-market economy.  Why did Vietnam miss out in this club?  Did Hanoi know something that these countries did not?  No, rather, it is the reverse and Vietnam and her people have been paying the price for it ever since.  A more rational approach for Vietnam to counter an emerging, assertive China is for Vietnam to align herself with the economically powerful and democratically free nations of Asia.  In order to do this Vietnam will have to continue on the path of free-market industrialization coupled with a democratic transition into a more transparent political system.  Economic issues are not independent of political issues.  Historical experience from several countries in the recent past has proven this point.  The present political organization of the country will not suffice to tackle the challenges to come when a country rapidly industrialize from an agriculture based society to an industrial based society.  The rise of an educated middle-class will want a greater voice in the political arena.  They have assets and interests to protect.  It seems redundant but advanced countries share some of the same characteristics everywhere else.  These characteristics include the protection of property rights, enforcement in the rule of law, belief in universal human rights, and the respect for religious tolerance.  These characteristics represent the highest political evolutionary development for humankind.  This belief was further expounded by Francis Fukuyama’s masterful piece, “the End of History and the Last Man”.  His book illustrated that a free-market, liberal democracy is the best model that provides the greatest happiness for all citizens of a country.  He believes the terminus for a nation in the organization of its political system ultimately lies in liberal democracy.  Consequently, the rationale being that a totalitarian system will ultimately fail because it is not a lasting system and is not resilient enough to survive the passing of time.  Furthermore, there are no other rival to liberal democracy as a form of government that has proven to be a better alternative and thus we are faced with the “End of History”. 

            The conditions of Vietnam and China are very similar because both have an outdated political system; both are rapidly industrializing and integrating themselves into the world wide economy.  But Vietnam should not blindly follow China’s path without question.  It is not in her national self-interest to do so.  Furthermore, Vietnam needs more able, educated, and knowledgeable leaders who understand the complexities of the world.  The affairs of state are too important to be determined by a beauty contest process determined by the Communist Party of Vietnam. When the political talent pool is so limited, it can have disastrous consequences for a nation.  How Vietnam’s future political leaders manage the relationship with the ascendant Chinese state will affect Vietnam’s own future.  China has stated that her rise will be a peaceful one.  It is yet to be seen if China can show such stated restraint especially if her national interest is at stake.  Reading the future is tricky business.  I would believe a peaceful rise for China is possible if she had a more representative and transparent government.  After all if a country with a political system that tolerates the cold blooded, public massacre of its own citizens, then what kind of restraint is it capable of when dealing with the lives of non-citizens beyond its borders?  Changing times and conditions require new ideas and new solutions in order to rectify problems of the future.  One of the reasons for the slow pace of political change in Vietnam is because the political leadership in Hanoi still looks to China for guidance.  They see that Beijing is succeeding in developing a market based economy without ceding any political control.  Thus, Hanoi is limiting herself to the possibility that there are other alternatives besides a communist dictatorship.  Eventually, change will come to Vietnam but the question is to what extent and where will it lead?  Hence, the political changes inside Vietnam could come slowly through an evolutionary process or it could crescendo into a crisis and ultimately disintegrate.  It should be noted, after the euphoric spring of 1989, that the first Asian country to forge her own destiny by leaving behind her communist past for good was Mongolia.  It is my hope that Vietnam will not be the last.

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