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Now Vietnam Needs America to Ward Off China

Southeast Asian neighbors might like to help Hanoi, but they have their own worries about Beijing

Among the countries of Asia, few relationships have been as stormy as that between Communist neighbors China and Vietnam.

In 1979, China launched a border war against Vietnam designed, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, "to teach Vietnam a lesson." In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a naval battle over the Spratly Islands, and China has violated Vietnam's territorial waters nine times since 1991.

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On March 7 China raised the stakes by moving an oil rig, the Kan Tan III, 64 nautical miles off Vietnam's shore. Vietnam initially reacted by quietly passing a note to China's ambassador in Hanoi, expressing its concern with the violation.

But the Vietnamese went public on March 20, presenting their case (and the aerial photographs to prove it) to fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While these countries view Vietnam's situation sympathetically because of their own maritime claims, only one of the seven members - the Philippines - publicly supported Vietnam.

China's strategic backyard

On April 1, China withdrew the oil rig. But an official with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation said it was removed only because it failed to find oil. Subsequent diplomatic discussions have remained deadlocked.

There are both economic and political reasons for China's provocative actions. First, China became a net importer of oil in 1994. With insufficient energy reserves at home, China has incentives to expand its territorial reach in the South China Sea. Second, given that some of China's claims to the South China Sea date back to the Qing dynasty, any perceived compromise of the country's sovereignty could be destabilizing for Jiang Zemin's efforts to cement his position as Deng's successor.

Strategically, Beijing's actions are well devised. As in the past, China shows a penchant for acting unilaterally and then professing an interest in negotiations. In this recent dispute China has stated that it would now accept joint development of Vietnam's offshore oil deposits. Naturally, Vietnam finds this unacceptable.

However, by choosing to encroach only on Vietnam, China has ensured that the dispute remains bilateral, not harming its overall ties to ASEAN nations. While ASEAN members are obviously concerned that China could employ a similar strategy against their claims in the South China Sea, their reluctance to condemn China's actions appears to have validated Beijing's approach.

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China's recent moves against Vietnam are a perfect test for gauging both ASEAN cohesion and the wider interest of the international community.

Diplomatically, Vietnam has limited means for deterring China's advance on its territorial claims. ASEAN will remain the best forum for Vietnam to organize support for its position. It must continue to work with the members of ASEAN to monitor China's movements in the South China Sea. But ASEAN support will go only so far. Before Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, the body informed Hanoi that it would not confront China on its behalf.

Rather, Vietnam's improving relationship with the United States is the greatest deterrent to Chinese territorial violations, and it also buttresses US interests in the region. China wants Vietnam - its "strategic backyard" - and the rest of Indochina (Cambodia and Laos) to remain free of any outside military influence. If the Chinese believed in the credibility of US-Vietnamese military cooperation, they would be forced to be more careful about violating Vietnamese sovereignty or any other policies that might bring the US and Vietnam closer.

From an American perspective, a military relationship with Vietnam offers a number of benefits. Since nearly a quarter of the world's ocean freight passes through the South China Sea, the US has an economic interest in promoting the region's stability. Furthermore, with military budgets expanding faster in this region than anywhere else, an enhanced US presence would help to discourage an Asian arms race as well as quiet fears that the US commitment to Asia is eroding.

US-Vietnam military ties?

Earlier this month, Adm. Joseph Prueher, commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Command, became the highest-ranking US military official to visit Hanoi since the Vietnam War. Admiral Prueher said he and his Vietnamese counterparts had discussed a "nascent military relationship."

During Vice President Gore's recent tour of the region, he denied any intention of reducing the US presence in Asia. But present levels may prove insufficient for a volatile region. The Clinton administration should not be hemmed into a mere maintenance of the status quo. As China's recent wanderlust demonstrates, the Asia-Pacific balance of power remains fluid. The US must remain willing to react in the interests of Asian stability. Vietnam is the place to start.

* William J. Dobson is associate editor of Foreign Affairs.

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