• Owen Swift

Episode 53. Vietnam: Frontline of the South China Sea

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Rundown:

Vietnam is quickly become the new frontline in the South China Sea, with the nation standing in the direct path of an expansionist China. While the country has long held its own and punched above its weight, as tensions continue to escalate Hanoi's strength and fortitude will be tested. Will Vietnam once again be the rock great empires crash upon? Or will they be unable to resist the pull of Beijing's gravitational orbit?

Guests:

Sebastian Strangio

  • Southeast Asia Editor for The Diplomat

  • Analyst and reporter focusing on East Asia

  • Author of books and reports about Southeast Asian history and geopolitics.

Huong Le Thu

  • Expert in Asian Regional Security for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

  • Author of several excellent papers on Vietnam and their role in Southeast Asia

Gordon Flake

  • CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre

  • A world-leading authority on strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific

  • Worked with a wide range of national governments on defence issues and strategic planning

  • Lecturer at the University of Western Australia

Part 1: In The Dragon's Shadow (2:00)

  • Strangio helps us understand the unique relationship between Vietnam and China, contrasting the links between their respective communist parties against the extensive history of Vietnamese resistance to Chinese rule and influence.

  • We look at how Vietnamese national identity was forged by reaction to China, in the shadow of their various dynasties over thousands of years.

  • Vietnamese foreign policy has been centred around the "Four No's". We analyse what these are, what they mean, and their future as tensions ratchet up in Southeast Asia develops.

  • Turning to the region's other major power, we look at how the relationship between Hanoi and Washington has developed since the end of the Vietnam war, and what their recent strategic convergence means for the South China Sea.

  • We look at a few of the critical issues Vietnam is faced with in the region; from the implementation of hydropower dams, to their historic ties to Cambodia and Laos; both countries ruled by regimes that Vietnam enabled to gain power, to economic interdependence on China.


Part 2: The Domino (23:47)

  • Huong Le Thu takes us through the long-term effects that decades of war had on Vietnam, and the influence it has had on the country's national psyche and approach to foreign policy.

  • Following the post-war thread we trace the ongoing process of repairing the relationship between Vietnam and the United States. Unexploded ordnances and ongoing chemical effects remain issues, but overall the relationship has markedly improved.

  • The recent announcement of the AUKUS agreement has had mixed reactions from Southeast Asian countries. We analyse what informed Vietnam's mostly positive response to this development, and what that means for the building of alliances in the region in future.

  • Huong gives us her view of what Vietnam's future and role is likely to be in the next 20 years, including the challenges faced by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), and the economic and infrastructure demands of Vietnam's growing economy and population.

Part 3: Boxed In (35:45)

  • Flake takes us through the transformation of Vietnam's regional role that has taken place over the last 15 years. From an ASEAN charity case in the mid-90s to undoubtedly one of its leaders, they are a tremendous success story in the region. We look at how they achieved this and what it means for regional geopolitics.

  • Vietnam has been the most forthright and vocal in the region to Chinese encroachment on the South China Sea. We look at why they have taken a greater role than very concerned parties like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia despite having a land border with China.

  • We overview the relationships Vietnam has; from the historical ties that still grant them influence in Phnom Penh and Vientiane, to Cold-War era relations with Russia, to increased ties and coordination with parties concerned with the Indo-Pacific from around the world like Germany, France, Australia, the United Kingdom, India, and the United States.

  • India and Vietnam have a notably close relationship which has included economic investment, maritime coordination, and naval sales. What are India's interests in the region, why have its relations with Vietnam advanced so much more quickly than with its neighbours, and is Vietnam likely to be involved with the Quad in any way?

  • Flake takes us through where he sees the future of Vietnam developing. It is an increasingly strong state, whose national narrative and young population have kept them moving forward, and whose geographic situation and historic strength have kept them deeply pragmatic. While demographics would by default give leadership of the region to Indonesia, their internal issues have limited their effectiveness in this, and Vietnam is more than capable of taking the mantle.

The Red Line's Vietnam Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Vietnam.


Books:

In the Dragon's Shadow

Sebastian Strangio


Asia's Cauldron

Robert Kaplan


Vietnam: Rising Dragon

Bill Hayton


Articles/Journals:

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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Nicholas J Meyers, Daniel Geizler, and Brad Buss.