TOKYO – For 30 years after World War II’s end, Vietnam claimed the global spotlight. Its victories over France and the United States were the defining wars of independence of the post-colonial era. But ever since those immortal scenes of US army helicopters hovering above the abandoned US embassy in Saigon in 1975, Vietnam has mostly slipped from the world’s consciousness.
No longer. Vietnam’s strategic position – as a neighbor of China, situated parallel to the great sea trade routes of Asia – always made the country tremendously important, which may be one reason why its anti-colonial wars lasted so long. In recent years, however, Vietnam’s strategic significance has increased dramatically, owing to huge – and not always widely recognized – transformations in its economic performance and foreign-policy orientation.
Reinvigorated by two decades of rapid economic growth and a broad-based opening to the outside world, Vietnam is now an emerging player in regional economic and security affairs. Indeed, in recent months the country has played a pivotal role in helping to establish Asia’s emerging security order.
In late October, Hanoi hosted the East Asian Summit, a meeting at which the US and Russia were recognized as Asian powers with vital national interests in the region. Earlier in October, at the inaugural summit of ASEAN defense ministers in Hanoi, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared the US a “resident power” in Asia. And earlier this summer, while hosting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vietnam encouraged her to intervene in the growing maritime disputes between China and Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam itself.
Vietnam’s emergence as a central player in Asian affairs should not be surprising, for the country was the catalyst of perhaps the key turning point in modern Asian history. In February 1979, China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, ordered the People’s Liberation Army to invade Vietnam. Deng wanted to punish the Vietnamese for their own invasion of Cambodia, which ended the genocidal rule of China’s allies, the Khmer Rouge. So vital was this decision to Deng that he assigned overall command of the invasion to his fellow Long March veteran, General Hsu Shih Yun (who had given Deng shelter when, in 1976, he was purged for the second time by the dying Mao Zedong).
The British military analyst Major General Shelford Bidwell has dubbed this form of Chinese military strategy “teach a lesson” warfare. The first example of it was the brief Sino-Indian War of 1962. That Chinese invasion was intended to teach India a lesson for its support of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan resistance. An existing border dispute was used as a pretext to launch a swift invasion (one that caught Nehru’s India by surprise), inflict a humiliating defeat, and then stage a seemingly magnanimous unilateral withdrawal designed to highlight India’s impotence.
Deng’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979 was supposed to be another “teach a lesson” war. But, when the fighting ended, it was Deng who had to absorb most of the lessons. In a war that lasted barely a month, 250,000 Chinese front-line soldiers were thrashed by 100,000 Vietnamese border-militia troops. The Chinese lost more soldiers (perhaps 20,000) in those four weeks than the US lost in any single year of the Vietnam War.
The scale of China’s defeat stunned Deng, and historians often credit the PLA’s miserable performance with forcing him to take a hard look at China’s moribund Maoist system. Within months of the war’s end, indeed, Deng initiated the reforms that have since transformed his country.
Ten years later, Vietnam’s Communist rulers also concluded that Marxism-Leninism was an economic dead end, and decided to start down the same path of market reform that Deng had taken. As in China, it took time for the benefits to appear, but over the past few years Vietnam has seen the same rapid, poverty-reducing growth that China has experienced.
An agricultural miracle has transformed a country of nearly 90 million people who were once barely able to feed themselves into a global food-exporting powerhouse. Vietnam has also become a major exporter of clothes, shoes, and furniture. These are soon to be joined by microchips, given the $1 billion factory that chipmaker Intel built outside Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s total trade turnover now equals 160% of GDP, making it one of the world’s most open economies.
With Vietnam’s emergence as a pivotal player in Asia, we are able to view the Vietnam War in the context of the US strategy of global containment, which led it to defend not only South Vietnam, but also South Korea and Taiwan – “the three fronts,” as Mao Zedong put it. Then and now, Vietnam was the locus of a struggle between the vision of a monolithic Asia and that of an Asia that is open internally and to the world.
Today, that choice must be made anew. By acting to invigorate an Asian order that rejects hegemonic dominance, even to the extent of improving its military ties with the US, Vietnam has shown that it has learned its own lessons from the blood and treasure that it lost in its long wars of independence.