As China rises, other countries in East Asia are hedging their bets and seeking closer relations with superpowers farther away. Both Russia and the United States have been eying Vietnam which is only too happy to reciprocate.
President Dmitri Medvedev was in Hanoi just last month to seal the deal for the construction of Vietnam’s very first nuclear power plant by Russian contractors. Vietnam intends to build as many as eight nuclear plants before 2020.
Japan also has plans to aid Vietnam in the nuclear realm and recently initiated a joint venture with the country for the exploitation of rare earth materials in the mountains of North Vietnam. Both want to be less dependent on China in this regard which currently monopolizes the production of rare earths. These elements are essential for many of Japan’s high tech industries and used in the production of superconductors, electronic polishers and hybrid car components, including batteries and magnets.
China and Vietnam share a rich history. Chinese influence in Vietnam has been strong for centuries and today, the two remain among the few communist states in the world. Yet their bilateral relations haven’t much improved since the brief Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Border disputes and regional rivalry continue to be cause for mutual mistrust.
Even as ASEAN and China became a free-trade block in January, tension between the Middle Kingdom and its Southeast Asian neighbors has been rising. Its revisionist maritime border claims in the South China Sea in particular are forcing other countries in the area to seek American protection.
Mere decades after end of the Vietnam War, relations between the country and the United States now appear to be improving rapidly by contrast. The two have been holding naval exercises together and when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended an ASEAN summit in Hanoi this summer, she professed that the United States have a “national interest” in mediating disputes between China and the rest of East Asia.
Clinton stressed that the United States intend to remain neutral in any border conflict. At the same time, free shipping in the South China Sea has to be ensured. This body of water, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeast China, is of great strategic importance to the Chinese but similarly vital to continental Asian nations including Vietnam.
The United States maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific with bases in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. China has complained about this American shadow over the South China Sea and interpreted Clinton’s remark in Hanoi this summer as an “attack”. As the Chinese foreign minister put it, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
Little wonder that Vietnam is nervous and has accelerated its rapprochement with the United States. The Americans have agreed to share nuclear technology with Vietnam and sell the country military hardware, including submarines to patrol its coast. “It is always good to have a new friend,” mused the Vietnamese vice minister of defense Nguyễn Chí Vịnh in a recent interview. “It is even better when that friend used to be our enemy.”