Sign Up

The New Vietnam War

Global ironies in Asia’s continuing struggle for national independence, now against China.

May 22, 2014

Credit: MrPhieuLinh -

What a difference the passage of five decades makes. Back in the mid-1960s, the support provided by the Chinese was the Vietnamese people’s lifeline in their deadly struggle against the American invaders. The help from up north was critical in seeing to it that the mighty U.S. military eventually had to flee the country, tail between its legs.

Now, the world is treated to another display of Vietnam’s fierce fighting spirit when it comes to matters of national liberation.

Anybody who has seen the television footage of Vietnamese protesters in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi cannot but chuckle at the profound irony of the latest strife amongst the erstwhile brethren in the anti-capitalist struggle.

Half a century ago, the struggle throughout Asia was conducted against the West — the French, the British, the Dutch and then the Americans, who pretty much assumed the role of everybody’s clean-up brigade as the European empires, exhausted by World War II, began falling apart.

The new bad boy

What jumps out from the recent video footage is that the Vietnamese evidently didn’t defeat the Americans back then in order to cave to the Chinese later. As they proved as early as their 1979 war to block a Chinese intervention, the Vietnamese are always color-blind when it comes to outsiders who are keen on intruding illegitimately into their national space.

The Vietnamese people’s ultimate victory in their long struggle in what they rightfully call the Resistance War Against America gave them the courage to stand up to the Chinese in 1979 and continues to do so today.

Theirs is a level of pride and defiance that is wholly uncommon in Asia, where most other nations, for all practical purposes, still pretty much kowtow to China. Other nations’ most courageous thought of asserting their independence is to try and get the Americans to issue or strengthen security guarantees against China.

Infighting among Communist “brethren”

Vietnam is different. Like China, it still is a country run by the Communist Party. In fact, by comparison there seem to be still considerably more Communist-style propaganda banners embellishing the streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon than one sees in China.

Credit: William Allum-
Credit: William Allum-

So it has special charm that the (Communist) government of Vietnam authorized the protests in front of the embassy of the (Communist) People’s Republic of China.

Moreover, Vietnamese policymakers are outspoken is their description of Chinese duplicity, such as cynically using (pseudo) private shipping vessels in “nudging” Vietnamese Navy boats on the high seas – and then accusing the Vietnamese of attacking civilian boats when they defend themselves against the intrusion.

It also is heart-warming to see the excitement in the faces of the Vietnamese as they put their first large submarine fleet into service. That surely is a big symbolic step forward for a once feeble post-colonial country.

Credit: Keith Tarrier -
Credit: Keith Tarrier –

Aspirations versus hard facts of life

Even so, Vietnam’s sense of independence may not add up to much militarily. They are simply outgunned, compared to the military assets the Chinese have at their disposal.

The fight in the South China Sea is very much unlike a land intrusion war, where a skillful, courageous and properly conniving army can successfully defend its own soil even in a very asymmetric distribution of military power.

And yet, the Vietnamese’s fierce sense of independence and national pride in their own defense must be troubling to China. They should understand that the attitude they currently put forth in the South China Sea is bound to backfire.

Resorting to hard power has its (temporary) advantages, but its ardent pursuit destroys more than just China’s soft power. It hollows out its carefully crafted image of a “peaceful rise” in the eyes of the people that matter the most internationally — its own neighbors in the region.

Global capitalism gets disrupted

And even though the Vietnamese and others cannot really retaliate militarily against China, they do know that they have other weapons at their disposal.

Attacks on Chinese-owned manufacturing plants are one such way to embarrass the Chinese before a global television audience.

The fact that these protests at plants in Vietnam cause problems in the global supply chain — as Li & Fung, the Hong Kong-based arrangers of Asia-wide subcontracting, now acknowledge — is the final irony in all this.

Who would have ever imagined that the global supply chain — aka the backbone of the commercial power of (still largely Western) multinationals — would ever risk disruption because two Communist nations are duking it out?

From the Vietcong to the Law of the Seas

But that is precisely what is happening in Asia as the former key partners in the anti-colonial struggle, China and Vietnam, are at loggerheads over offshore oil discoveries. That sounds so … Western in attitude.

But leave it to the Vietnamese. Against long odds, they stand up, once again, for the cause of fair treatment of the (relatively) “little guy.”

Their struggle for national liberation continues. Now no longer directed at American invaders on their soil, it plays itself out not on the back of the Vietcong, but on the basis of emphasizing (very Western) legal concepts, such as commercial exclusion zones and the like on the high seas.


Who would have ever expected that global capitalism gets disrupted by infighting between China and Vietnam?

The Vietnamese don’t really have ideological blinders. First, they fought the Americans, now the Chinese.

The Vietnamese didn't defeat the Americans in the mid-1970s in order to cave to the Chinese now.

Vietnam’s sense of defiance is uncommon in Asia. Most other nations pretty much kowtow to China.

Vietnam’s independence struggle continues. Instead of the Vietcong, it now rests on (very Western) legal concepts.

The fight in the South China Sea is unlike a land intrusion war. Offshore, only hard assets matter.

China’s resorting to hard power has its (temporary) advantages, but it destroys the notion of a “peaceful rise.”