Vietnam’s Chinese Lessons

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.