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Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

We won our independence from the British in a hard-fought revolutionary battle. Today, no hard feelings: the Anglo-American alliance is strong, we all love Downton Abbey, and our skirmishes are largely confined to disputes over which version of The Office is funnier and how to spell and pronounce the word “aluminum.”

We fought the Germans, the Japanese, and the Italians, and these relationships today are quite strong as well. Ties with Grenada and Panama aren’t so bad either, despite the minor wars we waged in those places a couple decades ago. Our former enemies have all become our current friends.

But here’s the rub: Britain is no longer a colonial monarchy. The Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese imperial government are long gone. Grenada and Panama have different regimes as well. The same applies to other former adversaries and current allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Which makes Vietnam such an interesting case. The Viet Cong struggled first against the French and then the Americans across several decades before finally winning on the ground and at the negotiating table. More than 2 million Vietnamese (and as many as 3.8 million) died during the conflict. The countryendured more than twice the number of bombs than the United States used during World War II. In the end, the Vietnamese unified the country under communist rule, and the Communist Party of Vietnam still maintains a one-party system today. In other words, they beat us, and they remain, more or less, politically intact.

But then how to explain Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam last week asserting that increased U.S. naval access in that country “is a key component of this relationship and we see a tremendous potential here for the future.” U.S. warships already put in at Danang. Further south along the Vietnamese coast, the former Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay looks out onto the South China Sea, with the Paracel and Spratly island chains in the waters to the east in the direction of the Philippines. Currently, a number of countries are making competing claims to these islands and their surrounding waters. The largest and most powerful claimant is, of course, China.

Panetta insisted on this Asia tour that the United States cozying up to Vietnam has absolutely nothing to do with counterbalancing China. So, let’s see, that means that we want to send more of our warships to Vietnam because:

1)    the Pentagon has established a civil-military deal with Vietnam for the production of high-grade fish sauce for export by Navy war ships to gourmet shops in New York City.

2)    Somali pirates have executed a Pacific pivot of their own and have extended their operations to the South China Sea.

3)    A huge number of Vietnam veterans are willing to pay big money for nostalgia tours that will help the Pentagon meet its budget needs.

So, yes, we’re doing this because of China. But we can’t say that. After all, both China and Vietnam belong to that peculiar foreign policy category of “frenemy” – they’re not our enemies, but they’re not alliance partners either. We trade, we flirt, we conduct mil-to-mil relations, we complain about them behind their backs. We can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. And this latest move closer to Vietnam is a classic case of: the frenemy of our frenemy is an even closer frenemy. For Vietnam, the frenemy across the border might prove more worrisome than the frenemy across the sea. Washington smells political opportunity in all this.

Vietnam, of course, would like something in return. We normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, 20 years after the Vietnam War. In that time, the United States has become the largest foreign investor in the Vietnamese economy, accounting for nearly 50 percent of FDI by 2009. If the United States wants closer military cooperation, Vietnam wants Washington to lift the arms embargo that’s been in place since forever.

Don’t expect “U.S.-Vietnam BFF” buttons appearing on State Department lapels any time soon. Panetta’s visit “is not evidence of ‘warming relations’ between the United States and Vietnam,” cautions Andrew Wells-Dang, author of the new study Civil Society Networks in China and Vietnam. “For one, Vietnamese leaders take great care to balance U.S. contacts with an equal or greater number of Chinese visits and cooperation. Secondly, U.S. officials such as Senators McCain and Lieberman have made it clear that overall improvements in U.S.-Vietnamese relations will not happen in the absence of changes on human rights (or at least in that subset of human rights issues that the United States pays attention to).”

The pivotal issue may ultimately prove to be the South China Sea, where Vietnam has hotly contested China’s energy claims around the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The United States has portrayed itself as an honest broker in the conflict. In 2010, Hillary Clinton announced that the South China Sea was a “national interest” for the United States. Last November, she provided some additional explanation in remarks in the Philippines. “The United States does not take a position on any territorial claim, because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it,” she said. “But they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion. They should be following international law, the rule of law, the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea.”

Given that the United States has used both intimidation and coercion in its own backyard, not to mention outright military force, Clinton’s assertion was somewhat disingenuous, as was her insistence that countries follow a UN convention that the United States has conveniently neglected to sign. Indeed, China has behaved toward the South China Sea much like the United States has treated the Caribbean.

Consider the recent dust-ups with the Philippines. Last year, the Philippines contracted a company to do a seismic survey near Palawan Island as a first step in searching for oil reserves. Palawan Island is an island province of the Philippines nearest the Spratly chain. Two Chinese patrol boats disrupted the survey, prompting the Philippines to dispatch two military jets to the area, forcing China to back off.

Then, this past April, a similar standoff took place further to the north near the Scarborough Reef. This time, Philippine authorities seized Chinese fishermen working the area, accusing them of catching endangered species and violating Philippine sovereignty. China sent its own boats, chasing off a Philippine warship, and retaliated economically. Philippine banana growers, shut out of the Chinese market, watch in anguish as their product piles up and rots. Such is the potential fallout when frenemies go at it.

The United States, meanwhile, stands at the ready to glean the windfalls. “So far,”writes Kirk Spitzer at Time, “the U.S. and Philippines have agreed to open the former Clark Air Base and Subic Bay naval facilities for U.S. troop rotations, port visits and training exercises; to donate two more retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines navy; and send radar and ocean-surveillance equipment to keep an eye on you-know-who.”

Of course, it’s not just geopolitical maneuvering. “Nearly $1.2 billion of U.S trade traverses the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans through the South China Sea,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Derek Bolton in Pivoting Toward the South China Sea. “In terms of global trade, 90 percent of all commercial goods are shipped from one continent to another. Of this nearly half of all gross tonnage and one-third of all monetary value is sent through the South China Sea. Additionally the sea holds an abundance of minerals, fish stocks, natural gas, and oil reserves.” In other words, this is Treasure Island times a thousand.

China has taken a rather forceful bargaining position to secure this treasure. Its“nine-dash line” takes such a large bite out of the South China Sea that it practically nibbles at the coastlines of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. China argues that it has history and plenty of maritime maps on its side. That’s true, perhaps, but when China signed the International Law of the Seas convention, it agreed to let the new treaty supersede earlier claims.

In general, aside from a couple unpleasant incidents, China has been content to assert its claims nonviolently. It has occasionally flirted with the idea that the South China Sea is a “core interest” at the same level as Taiwan and Tibet, but has effectively backed away from such an assertion. It continues to accept the United States as a hegemonic force in the region, which means that it hasn’t yet adopted a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. Western analysts express concern about China’s development of anti-access technologies – such as anti-ship missiles – but what country wouldn’t hedge its bets in the face of what looks to a Go player like a lot of black pieces attempting to surround a large white mass?

Still, the trend lines are not encouraging. China is concerned about being boxed in by its frenemies, the United States principal among them, and it desperately needs to ensure a sufficient flow of energy to fuel its economic growth. The United States is talking about Pacific this and Pacific that as if the mere mention of Asia can somehow wipe away the bad taste of Iraq and Afghanistan. And Southeast Asia is buying military hardware as if preparing for a major free-for-all in the South China Sea. The region upped its spending 13.5 percent last year. Even little Singapore has become the fifth largest arms importer in the world.

The big boys on the block profess to be above the fray. The United States is not advancing any territorial claims; China is involved in a “peaceful rise.” But their actions, if unchecked, will turn the South China Sea into the Balkans of the Pacific. Sure, friends are forever. But frenemies don’t come with that kind of warranty.


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John Feffer

John Feffer