China and the Power Game

Thirty years ago, when US troops withdrew from Vietnam, the war-torn country was totally left on its own, without support from either its supposedly Communist allies (China) or former colonial powers (France). In this article, Nayan Chanda, who covered Saigon at the time, discusses the changes in power relations amongst the various players surrounding Vietnam since 1975. To be sure, Vietnam never viewed China as a dependable ally; instead, even after the Americans left, leaders in Hanoi took "the US presence as a guarantee for its independence," says Chanda. Washington, however, did not picture itself as part of the power game in Indo-China anymore. Rather, the US and other powers ignored and isolated Vietnam for the next two decades, even during times when the country was threatened by China or fought with Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. When diplomatic relations were restored between Hanoi and Washington in 1995, geopolitics in Asia had become drastically different from twenty years before. Questions remain for today's Vietnam, as the region balances the influences of – again – both China and the United States. – YaleGlobal

China and the Power Game

Nayan Chanda
Monday, May 2, 2005

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut – Within days of the last Marine helicopter lifting off from the American Embassy in Saigon on April 30, one could see a new regional power balance taking shape.

It was a very different order from the one that the Kennedy administration had feared when it committed troops to Vietnam more than a decade earlier. Instead of triggering the fall of Southeast Asian dominoes into China's lap, Vietnam was emerging as a barrier against the very influence that Washington had fought – Beijing's.

A few days after watching North Vietnamese tanks crash through the gate of the presidential palace, I met a North Vietnamese colonel in a music store. Hoping to gauge the North's political leanings, I had asked him if they read the Peking Review in Hanoi.

"Yes," he said, nodding approvingly, "it's very good paper, good to roll cigarettes."

Nor did North Vietnamese troops entering Saigon show any affection for China. Mao portraits and flags hoisted in China town as a welcoming gesture to the Communists were swiftly ordered taken down.

The sound coming from the Chinese capital was not one of applause for Vietnamese comrades-in-arms. The People's Daily headlined the threat from Soviet hegemonists, relegating the communist victory in South Vietnam to a secondary place.

This was the anticlimactic denouement of an American involvement in Vietnam that had been premised on stopping the Chinese.

Instead, as the North Vietnamese Army took control of Saigon, they made no attempt to interdict the evacuation, treating the U.S. helicopter evacuation as a temporary withdrawal. They refrained from raising their flags at the U.S. Embassy, sparing the United States the humiliation of its ignominious departure.

Meanwhile, in the north stood giant China, locked in a struggle with the Soviets and deeply suspicious of a pesky Vietnam that had fought repeatedly against Chinese attempts at domination. Thus, despite its success in driving out America, Vietnam continued to view the U.S. presence as a guarantee for its independence.

If there was ever any doubt about the wisdom of considering the Vietnamese as China's puppets, it was removed four years later when China sent troops across the border to "teach Vietnam a lesson." Deng Xiaoping had given advance warning of the "lesson" to President Jimmy Carter and received tacit American support for his actions.

Of course, by then, Vietnam, facing Chinese hostility and bloody border raids by Beijing's ally, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Vietnam invited the Soviet Navy to Cam Ranh Bay, and, with Soviet aid, ousted the Khmer Rouge from power.

In another era or another context, the Vietnamese might have been applauded for bringing about regime change in Cambodia and liberating their neighbors from a genocidal nightmare. What instead followed the ouster of Pol Pot from Cambodia was nearly two decades of isolation and punishment of Vietnam. By July 1995, when the Americans finally returned to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam, Asia's geopolitical picture had again changed dramatically.

An economically vibrant and militarily resurgent China was well on its way to claiming leadership in Asia. Drawn together by the mutual need for a balanced situation in Asia, Hanoi and Washington had quietly begun taking baby steps in military cooperation.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld welcomed his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Van Tra to the Pentagon in 2003, when the two reached an agreement allowing U.S. Navy warships to call at Vietnamese ports. U.S.-Vietnam relations came full circle in November 2003, when – exactly 38 years after the first American marines landed in Danang – the U.S. frigate Vandegrift made a port call in Vietnam. It has since been followed by other warships.

A dispute over the positioning of the American and Vietnamese flags was resolved when the Vietnamese dropped their demand for the visiting ship to fly Vietnam's red and gold flag above the Stars and Stripes. As the Vandegrift steamed into Saigon port, both flags flapped gently in the breeze, hanging side by side.

Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online, covered the fall of Saigon for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is the author of ”Brother Enemy: The War After the War.”

Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune

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