The USS Roosevelt nuclear-powered aircraft carrier came out of quarantine to make a stop recently in Vietnam. This is the second time in recent memory that a ship has visited Hanoi and it signals important changes in the region. Most news stories are about China’s aggression, military buildup, harassing of fishing boats, placement of weapon systems on artificial islands and so forth. But the carrier to the region represents the potential drawbacks to such a policy. This negative is that China could be creating its own set of alliances against their powerful nation.
Why Doesn’t China Have More Friends?
This problem was highlighted by a simple question. After a conference in 2017 where Chinese leadership refused to meet with the South Korean leader during his four day visit analysts asked an insightful question: “[W]hy is it that for such a big country, there is hardly any neighbor that can be described as China’s friend?” China is a growing power and their military dwarfs their neighbors, but those neighbors are beginning to challenge China’s supremacy and they could form a block that surrounds and contains China. The danger comes from being in a situation similar to Germany before World War One, in that a Chinese fear of being surrounded could create an unstable doomsday machine of alliances and counter alliances that plunge the world into global war.
Parallel: Germany Before World War One
Before World War One, Germany constantly worried they would be surrounded. As a result they aggressively pursued their interests with their neighbors around them. But it often backfired. The First and Second Moroccan Crises sparked international outrage and led to a strengthening of the bonds between Britain and France against Germany. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 destabilized Eastern Europe and made Russia even more interested in supporting its remaining ally in the region against Germany and Austria Hungary. The end result of German maneuvers to not be trapped was a strengthening of alliances against them and what Henry Kissinger called a doomsday machine that plunged the world into the catastrophic warfare of World War One.
China claims they are addressing their rights and defending their sovereignty. But they are doing so by aggressively disputing land and maritime territories with most of its neighbors, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. Much like Germany before World War One, these actions end up being counterproductive.
Vietnam Boosting Forces to Counter China
Vietnam is specifically building forces meant to counter Chinese strength and is actively seeking allies that face the same threats from China, including India, Japan, and even the US. The visit of the USS Roosevelt solidifies this trend. With the recent trade war and tariffs between the US and China, as well as the significant disruption of Chinese supply chains during the coronavirus, Vietnam has become a sought after trade partner and welcomes investments from Japan and Australia as well, which leaves China with less leverage than many people think.
But Vietnam also has common cause against China in the South China Sea. By partnering with the US as a “cooperative maritime partner” and receiving equipment like the T-6 trainer aircraft and Scan Eagle Unstaffed Aerial Vehicles, as well as a supply of coastguard vessels. These will help counter balance China’s aggressive use of its coast guard that as recently as last month sunk and detained Vietnamese fisherman new the disputed Parcell Islands. In that dispute Washington firmly sided with Vietnam.
The Future of Vietnam-US Cooperation
Future cooperation will help the strategic calculus favor the US though problems remain. Domestically there is concern that allying with Vietnam will look like the US condones their human rights abuses and is becoming too close to a communist regime. This would significantly upset Vietnamese refugees. Vietnam has a long-standing policy of not allying with one foreign power against a third, hosting any foreign military camps, and refusing to change its nonaligned stance by joining with a superpower.
But the direction so far for Vietnam and almost every Chinese neighbor is one of more cooperation with the US against China. South Korea resisted Chinese pressure and allowed America to deploy Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missiles. These missiles are a key defensive weapon system against China’s preferred strategy that consists of overwhelming amounts of missiles to deny access or destroy American forces. India had a tense ten-week standoff not too long ago in a critical strategic area connecting mainland India to its north eastern states but it was the Chinse that backed down. Japan is looking to move its companies out of China. and seeking new missiles for island defense.
The fear of a string of allied territories surrounding them could temper Chinese rhetoric and lead to more cooperation. But considering Beijing’s heavy handed oppression of Hong Kong protesters such a mellowing of belligerence seems unlikely. If China ends up being as isolated as pre-World War One Germany, they will try to win allies by aggressively pursuing their interests in border disputes, which will end up creating precisely the anti-Chinese block they fear. Thus, the visit of the USS Roosevelt is incredibly important in signaling the inchoate creation of that block aimed at containing China.