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Q&A: ‘Ready, Willing and Able’, Vietnam Is Poised for Regional Role

Helen Clark interviews Professor CARL THAYER, an expert on Vietnam

HANOI, Dec 2 2009 (IPS) - Professor Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, was in Hanoi last week for a multilateral conference on the issue of the South China Sea.

Prof Carl Thayer Credit:

Prof Carl Thayer Credit:

Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia all lay claim to the oil- rich Spratly-Paracel islands, which have as yet remained unexplored.

Thayer, who speaks Vietnamese, has been coming to Vietnam since 1981, five years before ‘doi moi’, the economic opening of the country to the rest of the world. Since then Vietnam has reduced poverty, built relationships in the region and farther afield, and joined the World Trade Organisation in 2007.

A graduate of Brown University in the U.S., Thayer obtained his master’s degree in South-east Asian studies from Yale University and Ph.D. in International Relations from the Australian National University.

He shares his thoughts on some of the major issues affecting Vietnam today.

IPS: You said Vietnam is “increasingly seen as a regional player” by countries, both inside and outside the region. CARL THAYER: The formal aspect is the ASEAN [Association of South-east Asian Nations] chairmanship next year and that Vietnam has just finished two years on the U.N. Security Council.

There are three pillars: socio-political, economic, socio-cultural. Vietnam is specifically pushing the first one through an initiative its defence minister has recently endorsed. ADMM Plus, which is the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting, stands for its ten dialogue partners. But more to the point is its (Vietnam’s) growing economy, political stability and willingness to cooperate outside South-east Asia.

Indonesia was unstable, Malaysia was unstable. They’ve come through and Thailand hasn’t. Vietnam is ready, willing and able to play that (increased) role.

IPS: It does not hurt that Vietnam has weathered the global financial crisis relatively well. CT: Take economic growth. It’s down to 5.2 percent this year, but it’s a high growth rate in the region. It puts it in the top rank in the region.

I think Vietnam did well as they launched their own stimulus programme and they haven’t lost FDI [foreign direct investment]. Its own monetary policies have resulted in return. The country’s going to be stable and it’s going to grow.

But like every country in the world, it’s got to decide when you go from special relief measures to withdrawing those so the real market forces can work.

IPS: Some have wondered whether Vietnam will ‘pick’ one over the other when it comes to two of its largest trading partners—the U.S. and China. CT: Take the tyranny of distance—this is the tyranny of geography. Vietnam’s next to China and it’s big and it won’t go away. The population of Vietnam is equivalent to a mid-sized Chinese province. Trade is 20 billion U.S. dollars and China has a ten-billion-dollar surplus in that. Vietnam has a massive deficit. Vietnam has an eight-billion-dollar trade surplus with the United States. It has other countries it can trade with… but those countries are so important.

All countries have to get along with China. Given the trade imbalances, it’d be suicidal (not to).

Vietnam is hosting the U.S.-ASEAN Summit (in 2010). They desperately want Obama here. Dealing with China, you’re using the summit and it’s useful to have an American president.

IPS: Could you call the U.S. attitude toward Vietnam part of a ‘China containment policy’ as some have argued? CT: If you look at Obama’s visit to China, he welcomed China’s rise. In the South-east Asian region, the new [U.S] administration is playing a multilateral game. Under Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, they signed the TAC [Treaty Amity and Cooperation]. ASEAN then invited the other countries to sign it. As Clinton has said, the United States is back. And very quickly we’ve covered lost ground.

IPS: What does Vietnam specifically want? CT: Vietnam wants to develop. The no-brainer is it has to have a peaceful environment. But part of that development was in 2007. They drew up a plan to develop maritime resources coast, territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

If those plans were to work, it would contribute to half of all GDP [gross domestic product] in the future. China got wind of that in 2007 and approached oil and gas companies (working with Vietnam) and said “if you do deals with the Vietnamese, your interests in China will be hurt.”

Their development plans were held hostage. This year the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State gave testimony at the Senate foreign relations committee, stating publicly the U.S. has protested to China about its behaviour, and the U.S. protests (Chinese) threats to U.S. companies.

Once U.S. companies are involved, they’ll go screaming to Washington, (so Vietnam) needs the U.S. to keep a check on China.

And there are other roles. One concern for the U.S.—one of the greatest concerns—is nuclear weapons. And on the U.N. Security Council, Vietnam has played a helpful role pushing towards non-proliferation. The U.S. gets another sign-up against North Korea.

IPS: And how does China view Vietnam? CT: China has borders with 14 countries. Vietnam is looked at as a country where you do not want instability or issues to flow over (the border). Vietnam is different from the other countries as it shares (South China Sea) conflict (with China) in the South China Sea. Vietnam needs China more than China needs Vietnam.

Vietnam is in ASEAN and China has to deal with ASEAN. China would like Vietnam to be compliant. Despite the frictions, its not a bad relationship…. except for the territorial disputes. We shouldn’t exaggerate certain issues.

IPS: Nations such as India also have reported strategic interest in Vietnam. Both have fought border wars with China, though only Vietnam won. CT: It’s particularly strong on the defence side. Eight years ago, India wanted to exchange views with Vietnam about fighting the Chinese in the mountains. They have an emerging strategic partnership, but it’s not operational. India is a big power in South Asia. It’s not unimportant.

IPS: People from fairly disparate groups— Buddhist, Catholic, anti-China, environmentalist, pro-democracy—seem to be finding each other via the Internet. But the government’s blocking of social networking site Facebook has put a damper on things of late. CT: There is cross-pollination going on and the country leaders’ default position is always repression.

IPS: For all the government arrests of dissidents and Internet activity, it still seems like most young people are apolitical. CT: Freedom and democracy… what’s the material gain? For years I’ve been arguing the legitimacy of the Communist Party is economic growth, and now political stability.

You don’t want political instability as that kills off foreign investment. When I first came to Vietnam, I met government ministers with patches on their clothes. When I look at the children today, they’re getting the material life their parents didn’t have.

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