Vietnam’s Role, and Leverage in the Southeast Asia Sea
This past Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta paid a visit to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. base used during the Vietnam War. The visit yielded agreements between the U.S. and Vietnam to open restricted military sites in Vietnam that would permit searches for MIA soldiers of the war. Behind these agreements however, is the continuation of a deeper goal, the further normalization of relations between two former enemies.
As of today, Panetta is the most senior American official to visit Cam Ranh Bay. Not only does this visit signify the developing ties between the two sides, it also signifies America’s national interests in Vietnam as a key player in the Southeast Asia Sea. According to American analysts, Vietnam currently holds a decisive role in shaping the balance of power in the Southeast Asia Sea. The Center for a New American Security professes that Vietnam is arguably the pivotal player, or “swing-state” for what happens in the sea. If Vietnam fails to step up to an increasingly assertive China, smaller countries like the Philippines have little chance of resisting.
These insights paint a vivid picture of Vietnam’s potential in dealing with Chinese hegemony. Of the many countries in Asia at this point in time, Vietnam remains the key obstacle against Chinese expansionism. As a result, the U.S. continues to pursue better relations with the country. Unfortunately, these warming relations comes at the cost of human rights in Vietnam. To keep Vietnam from running into the arms of the Chinese, the United States must turn a blind eye to the atrocious human rights record of Vietnam. This is the American dilemma. In order to keep U.S.-Vietnam relations on the right track, the United States is forced to soften its stance on human rights.
Nonetheless, this reality outlines the importance of Vietnam’s role in dealing with Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. Vietnam can very well be the difference maker in China’s success or failure in this territorial dispute, and has the power to counter China’s influence in Southeast Asia. America understands this, and Vietnam understands this. This is one major reason why the two countries have become so close in recent years, with an increasingly nervous and aggressive China on the periphery. Though the human rights abuses continue to cause friction between Vietnam and the U.S., the China issue continues to bring the two closer together.