Alliances in a Dynamic World

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS May 31, 2016


One of the most famous quotes on diplomacy comes from mid-19th century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." Its validity has been on display during President Barack Obama's trip to Asia. Consider his visit to Hiroshima. The liberal media highlighted the number of dead and injured from the first use of an atomic bomb on the city. The popular theme is that the use of the A-bomb was an unprecedented act of violence against civilians, even though the campaign of fire-bombing against Japanese cities had done more aggregate damage and inflicted more casualties (as 1000-bomber raids had done against Germany). Coverage overlooked how vicious the entire Pacific war had been; from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, through the Bataan death march to island battles where few prisoners were taken and the mass use of suicide attacks. Yet, within just a few years---and while the country was still under occupation, Japan and the U.S. became allies because their interests coincided in opposition to the common threat posed by the Soviet Union. And today, that alliance is even stronger due to the threat posed by the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Obama's trip to Hiroshima was not needed to promote "reconciliation" with Tokyo; that happened decades ago based on calculations of Realpolitick. The trip was prompted by Obama's own inner demons and his naive campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons---- a campaign that has done nothing to blunt the expanding arsenals of China and North Korea which is driving India's armament program and may prompt Japan to develop its own deterrent if its faith in America wavers.

The Soviet Union had been an ally during World War II, one to which the U.S. sent massive amounts of "lead lease" aid via convoys that had to fight their way through Arctic waters against German air, surface and U-boat attack. Within a few years of VE day, however, the former allies were building nuclear arsenals designed to blow each other off the map. During the Cold War, the other major Axis powers (Germany and Italy) joined an array of former enemies in NATO. Italy had actually changed sides during World War II. During World War I, Italy and Japan had been on the same side as the U.S. and Russia.

The Vietnam War is a traumatic memory that far more Americans remember than the world wars. It is also a war that the U.S. lost by having its will to fight worn down by a North Vietnam Communist regime that would not quit fighting despite suffering a million dead. Hanoi also had the support of the Soviets and the Chinese. Yet, five years after the fall of Saigon, former allies and revolutionary comrades Vietnam and China were engaged in a border war. Chinese troops invaded Vietnam in 1979 after Vietnam had invaded Cambodia the previous year to overturn the brutal Khmer Rouge regime supported by Beijing. Hanoi had sided with Moscow in the Sino-Soviet split which had placed national interests above Communist ideology. Russian warships used the former U.S. base at Da Nang. Beijing withdrew its forces from Vietnam after heavy fighting and high casualties. Both sides claimed victory.

On his visit to Hanoi, President Obama lifted the U.S. embargo on the sale of weapons to Vietnam which had been in place since 1975. The strategic reconciliation between Hanoi and Washington had taken its first big step back in 2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devoted the largest part of her remarks while visiting Hanoi to the South China Sea dispute where Vietnam is again resisting Chinese aggression. U.S. warships started to make port visits and have increased cooperation with the Vietnamese military in the last few years. There have been four port calls this year, putting American fleet units into disputed waters to "to maintain the freedom of navigation and the governance of international norms" as Obama stated in Hanoi.

According to a report published by Defense News (May 25) "a US defense industry source indicates Hanoi is seeking to improve its air defense and maritime security capabilities with the procurement of F-16 fighter aircraft from the US Pentagon's excess defense articles (EDA) program and refurbished P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, armed with torpedoes."

Beijing is well aware of what this rapprochement means and its motive. The PRC Foreign Ministry reacted calmly to the first announcement of the lifting of the arms embargo, saying "As a neighbor to Vietnam, China is happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries including the US. And we hope this would be conducive to regional peace, stability and development."  However, Global Times, the media outlet of the ruling Communist Party, in an editorial on May 22 argued,

The South China Sea issue is drawing the US and Vietnam closer. Yet the different ideology is constantly pushing them away. Hanoi wants to gain more leverage from the US to contain China in the South China Sea, making it a bargaining chip in its territorial disputes with Beijing. Meanwhile, it also hopes to develop its own economy by strengthening ties with the US. To Washington, if Hanoi could get closer to Washington like the Philippines and Singapore - providing military bases to the US - the White House' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region will gather new momentum. Nevertheless, it is impossible that both sides can overcome their concerns over each other. US society is severely biased toward the regime helmed by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Beijing is hoping that ill will lingering from the Vietnam War will block a new alignment against a common threat. The Chinese are encouraged by comments by liberal members of Congress like Sandy Levin (D-MI) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) who have complained about drawing closer to Vietnam because of its poor record on "worker and human rights." The Vietnam Caucus, a bipartisan group, has castigated Hanoi for its suppression of religious freedom. These criticisms are all valid, but can also be leveled at Beijing. It should be remembered that Winston Churchill was a strong anti-Communist who had wanted to intervene in the Russian Civil War to prevent a Soviet victory. Yet, he embraced an alliance with Stalin to fight Hitler, because he considered the Nazi regime to pose the greater danger to British interests at the time. He later led the fight reorient Western policy against Stalin once WW II was won. The same logic of national interests should apply to pulling Vietnam into the Pacific Rim alignment against a rising China.

On May 27, the PRC Foreign Ministry returned to its hard line. Spokesperson Hua Chunying told the press, "China's actions in the South China Sea, which are justifiable, lawful and beyond any reproach, fall entirely within China's sovereignty. China has long been an upholder of the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. However, the freedom of navigation does not give others a license to do whatever they want. China is firmly against certain countries slinging mud at China under the pretext of upholding the freedom of navigation. ... As a host of the G7 Summit, Japan's hyping up of the South China Sea issue and regional tension does no good to stability of this area." The day before, she had praised China's own alliance system, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes Russia), for supporting Beijing in the maritime disputes.

On May 28, an editorial in Global Times raised the stakes higher. "As Sino-US tensions build, it is necessary for China to strengthen its capability for nuclear retaliation. It will help with balance in the Asia-Pacific region and enhance the US willingness to seek peace with China. China's technologies related to nuclear-powered submarines and the launch of strategic missiles from below the water have been advancing. It is time the People's Liberation Army sends nuclear submarines into the depth of the Pacific Ocean for regular patrols."

As Sino-U.S. tensions build, it is necessary for Washington to pull together an alliance system as capable as the one that faced down the Soviet empire during the Cold War. And in the case of Vietnam, we know from bitter experience that it has a regime that will fight for what it believes to be in its national interests.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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