By George Friedman
U.S. President Barack Obama in Hanoi yesterday announced an end to the decades-long arms embargo on Vietnam. Vietnam may purchase weapons from the United States under the same terms as other nations. This would not be major news except for the fact that the United States fought and lost a seven-year war with Vietnam.
One would think that history and ideology would make arms trade impossible. But when we look at the post-war history of the region, the unimportance of ideology in the decisions that nations make is actually startling.
The reason for this decision is China. In my view, the Chinese do not yet pose a significant military threat globally or in the region. At the same time, their intent is to increase their capabilities and the United States must plan accordingly.
Geography dictates that the United States must find allies who have significant disputes with China and need support to cope with a potential threat. China and Vietnam were allied during the Vietnam War, with China providing massive amounts of weapons, material and some advisers to Vietnam. The Chinese saw the defeat of the United States as diminishing the American threat to China.
Even before the Vietnam War ended, Chinese and Soviet relations deteriorated. They fought a major battle in 1968 on the Ussuri River, which separates Siberia from China. Regardless of shared ideology, the Soviets feared the Chinese and vice versa.
American power – or at least the perception of American power – declined as it became increasingly obvious that the United States was losing the war. The American fear was that the Soviets would use that weakness to attempt to seize Western Europe. Lacking sufficient troops to reinforce Europe, the United States faced a strategic crisis.
The United States solved the crisis by reaching out to the Chinese. At the same time the Chinese were arming Vietnamese troops fighting Americans, the Nixon administration reached out to the Chinese and proposed an understanding. The U.S. would press the Soviets from the west and the Chinese from the east. The two apparently weaker powers would create pressures on the stronger power from two directions, making action by the Soviets impossible.
From the Chinese point of view, if Western Europe collapsed, the Soviets would be free to overwhelm China. From the American point of view, a Chinese reconciliation with the Soviets would make the communist bloc overwhelmingly powerful at a time of American weakness.
Once the Vietnam War ended, underlying tensions between Vietnam and China emerged. There was an old but still vivid national memory of China’s occupation of Vietnam. As the war ended and Vietnam became the dominant power in Indochina, the Chinese feared Vietnam’s growing power. In 1979, this turned into a shooting war. The Soviets, now dealing with a hostile China, allied with the Vietnamese.
The United States saw this as a satisfactory balance of power. It therefore remained hostile toward Vietnam for historical and strategic reasons. The enemies of the Chinese were American enemies, for the time being and to a limited extent.
The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated China’s nightmare scenario. It proceeded to focus on economic growth and lost its intense interest in Vietnam. The United States lost interest in power politics for a while and then went to war with the jihadists. The intricacies of the Asian balance of power declined.
But with the downturn of China’s economy and the growth of its military, Vietnam became concerned that the Chinese might again consider military action. The United States, also seeing a growing possibility of confrontation, now thought differently of Vietnam than it had before.
U.S. forces are scattered from Europe to the Middle East and to northeast Asia. In the best case, the U.S. still would not have enough force to engage China on the mainland. Anything the United States could do to get China to divert and disperse its own forces lessens the possibility of needing to confront China directly.
And for the United States, the countries that are in the region and therefore can’t move out of danger are the best allies. The others might leave when needed most. Vietnam isn’t going anywhere, and its fear of China – and China’s fear of Vietnam – is long standing. Therefore, the stronger Vietnam is, the better it is for the United States.
So the United States agreed to sell weapons to Vietnam, open the door to an increased threat to China on its southern flank and, in the worst case, collaborate with Vietnam to pin China down in the south. Note that the Vietnamese regime is no less Marxist than it was in 1968, not much less repressive and ideologically no closer to the Americans.
But then look at the whole story and see how little ideology matters. The entire story is one of three Marxist regimes hostile to each other, and a Western capitalist regime using that hostility to balance the power.
From the point of view of geopolitical analysis, the unimportance of ideology in all that happened is clear. The importance of the nation-state, regardless of its official ideology is equally clear. None of these four nations behaved as their ideology demanded. All behaved as their national interest did.
This is why I find geopolitics an enormously more important method for understanding the world than beliefs and principles. These may matter in personal life. But the Marxism that defined Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev – and they were very much believers – could not resist geopolitical imperatives. And therefore, the president of the United States went to a Marxist country and set the stage for arming it. This should not surprise us.