New Internationalist

The new friends

Issue 084

The countries of Indochina are used to living under the shadows of both China and the United States. But now the two shadows have merged into one - with a profound effect on the balance of power. We look here at how and why this change has taken place.

The USA

MURRAY HIEBERT traces the history of U.S. diplomacy in Indochina from single-minded anti-communism to a subtler selection of communist allies.

Psychologists or sociologists may explain some day what it is about the monochromatic land, of green mountians and fields merging with azure sea’, Henry Kissinger wrote about Vietnam, ‘that for millenia has acted as a magnet for foreigners who sought glory there and found frustration, who believed that in its rice fields and jungles some principle was to be established and entered them only to recede in disillusion’.

American involvement in Indochina began 35 years ago with military support for the re-entry of the French colonialists in the wake of World War II. In its first full-length policy statement on Indochina in 1948, the State Department outlined its ‘long-term objectives’: (1) to eliminate so far as possible Communist influence in Indochina…; (2) to foster the association of the peoples of Indochina with the Western powers…; (3) to raise the standard of living so that the peoples of Indochina… will contribute to a better balanced world economy; and (4) to prevent undue Chinese penetration and subsequent influence in Indochina…’

Over the next three decades, Vietnam was to become the cockpit of a cold war struggle between the ‘Free World’ and ‘Communist expansion’, a pawn in an economic contest to secure natural resources and export markets. Following the defeat of the French in 1954, the US intervened directly with arms shipments, economic aid and military advisors to prop up a succession of anticommunist regimes in South Vietnam. Washington viewed the Communist world as a monolith, unable to see that two decades later the U.S. itself would be siding with China against the Soviet Union.

Through five different administrations, American involvement in Indochina became a product of growing institutional momentum. Frustrated in its military goals, Washington sought to end the war through escalation. In the mid-1960s, the US invaded Vietnam with B-52 bombers and half a million American troops. But escalation also failed and brought growing dissent at home against the cost of the war in human lives and tax dollars. Finally in the late 1960s, Washington began negotiating an American withdrawal and ‘peace with honor’. Asians would be paid to fight Asians to achieve a ‘decent interval’ between the U.S. withdrawal and victory of the Communist forces.

The American failure in Indochina did not end U.S. intervention abroad; merely the tactics were changed. Washington in recent years has used massive arms sales (to bolster the Shah in Iran), covert CIA activities (to topple Allende in Chile), and loans from private and international banks (to prop up Somoza in Nicaragua).

However, the failure of these tactics and the detention of American hostages in Iran late last year has again revitalized a militarist mood similiar to that which preceded the Vietnam involvement.

With the victory of the Communists in Indochina in April 1975, the U.S. shifted to diplomatic and economic tactics to continue isolating and weakening Vietnam. At this critical postwar juncture, the Ford administration imposed a trade embargo, refused to discuss reconstruction aid or normalization of relations, and repeatedly blocked Vietnam’s bid for a seat at the UN. Congress, on the other hand, was open to improved relations with Vietnam and voted to lift trade sanctions, only to be vetoed by President Ford. But American business was still interested and sent representatives to discuss potential deals with the Vietnamese particularly in off-shore oil exploration.

President Carter, elected in late 1976, initially moderated the cold war policies of his predecessors and sought a more flexible system of foreign relations. He dropped U.S. opposition to Vietnam’s UN membership, offered to exchange embassies, and agreed to lift the trade embargo as part of the normalization package. American and Vietnamese representatives met in Paris in mid-1977, but negotiations floundered on the question of aid. On the U.S. side, Congress had reversed its earlier openness and voted to prevent any American assistance to Vietnam. Hanoi, on the other hand, insisted on economic aid as a precondition for diplomatic relations.

In July, 1978, Vietnam announced that it was ready to normalize relations with the U.S. without preconditions. Vietnamese officials told visiting Americans that they felt improved U.S. - Vietnam relations could help head off a growing crisis between Vietnam, China and China’s ally, Kampuchea. Four months passed before Washington acknowleged Hanoi’s change of policy, but by then Vietnam had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and formulated plans to topple the brutal Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea.

Now Washington had other foreign policy priorites. After decades of trying to ‘prevent undue Chinese influence in Indochina’, the U.S. was normalizing relations with Peking. This new policy was a victory for Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski, who had long advocated developing international alliances to isolate and weaken the Soviet Union.

Following Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea early last year, the U.S. informed Hanoi that normalization talks had been postponed indefinitely. When China sought to ‘teach Vietnam a lesson’ six weeks later, Washington adopted a seemingly evenhanded policy of calling for Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea and Chinese withdrawal from Vietnam.

But in contrast to Washington’s earlier warning to Hanoi, Treasury Secretary Blumenthal was sent to Peking at the height of the Chinese assault to negotiate U.S. - China trade relations. And anticipating potential expansion of the conflict in Southeast Asia, Washington increased its arms shipments to Vietnam’s anticommunist neighbours last year.

If we had moved in early enough,’ said one State Department official, ‘the dynamics between Vietnam and its neighbours might well have been different.’

Some congresspersons and American diplomats in Asia now argue that normalization of relations with Vietnam would benefit the U.S. by giving it a channel of communication and perhaps some leverage with Hanoi during crises like the refugee problem or the war and famine in Kampuchea, and that American ties could help reduce Vietnamese dependence on the Soviets.

But any major shift in U.S. policy toward Indochina is unlikely during the current presidential election year.

Murray Hiebert is a Fellow at the Indochina Project, co-sponsored by the Center for International Policy, American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee in Washington D.C.

CHINA

JOHN GITTINGS explains a Chinese foreign policy that includes support for both Pinochet’s Chile and the Khmer Rouge Kampuchea.

Cutting the melon’ is how Chinese historians describe the assault on their country by the Western powers in the nineteenth century. Indochina, Burma, Korea, and other traditional dependent states which had insulated China from the rest of the world were peeled away. And long before Mao Tse-tung the West taught the Chinese that power grows from the barrel of the gun.

This legacy from the past still haunts Chinese foreign policy as Peking struggles for equality with the two greatest Western powers - the US and the USSR - and sees Indochina as part of the battleground.

This is not to justify the Chinese invasion of Vietnam early last year (which Peking has hinted could be repeated) but to explain the way that history has moulded Chinese diplomacy. For almost a century and a half the principal aim of that diplomacy has been — working from a position of inferiority - to cope with the great powers.

Even after the Communist victory of 1949 China was still dependent, in a negative sense, upon the US, which ostracised Peking, and positively, but often humiliatingly, upon heavy-handed friends in the Kremlin.

China has always denied that in any sense it traded support for Vietnam to win, at last, US recognition when Nixon visited Peking in 1972. But Indochina was inescapably part of the equation. Though Hanoi went on to unify the country, it suffered a psychological blow from the Nixon visit which permanently soured relations with China. For Nixon himself, the diplomatic triumph with Peking took the edge off impending defeat in Vietnam. China regained equality on the world scene and at the same time saved America’s face.

Mao had decided that the Soviet Union now presented the greater threat to Chinese security. With the same crystal logic he had applied many times in the past, he identified the enemy of China’s enemy as her friend. In theoretical language the overwhelming need was to ‘form the broadest possible united front to oppose Soviet hegemonism’. If this front included Pinochet’s Chile and the Shah’s Iran, then that was a tactical necessity.

And in private the Chinese officials make quite clear that Vietnam’s greatest crime has been to refuse to join this front. Throughout the 1960s Hanoi quite successfully steered a middlecourse but then drifted Moscow-wards as China moved closer to the US. Though Nixon had failed to save the American investment in South Vietnam, his rapprochement with Peking did succeed in isolating a unified Vietnam.

Vietnam has produced some rather unconvincing evidence to accuse China of wanting to seize South-east Asia. (A quotation from Mao to the effect that ‘we must conquer the world’ comes from a jokey speech where he went on to say ‘as for the sun, we can deal with that later!’)

But Peking’s attitude towards the former client states on her periphery does have elements of chauvinism. Though the general line of Chinese diplomacy, focussing above all on relations with the super-powers, dates back to Mao, this chauvinistic tinge seems to have deepened since his death and the death of Premier Chou en-Lai in 1976.

The politics of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh were formed in the genuine internationalist spirit of the 1920s. Though none can prove it I suspect that Chou would have objected in principle to the current leadership’s attempt to ‘teach Vietnam a lesson’. Chou would have sought by patient diplomacy to defuse the Cambodian situation before Pol Pot provoked Hanoi to invade.

I also suspect that Mao would have criticised the invasion of Vietnam on tactical grounds as an ‘adventurist’ action with no clear objective.

In any case, countries which call themselves socialist but which have grown up in the shadow of imperialist wars have no precedents of ‘socialist diplomacy’ to go by. Ironically the best prospect for peace in Vietnam would be a rapprochement on expedient grounds between China and the Soviet Union which is again a possibility.

John Gittings is the China correspondent for the Guardian, London

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