Vietnam misses Trump as it struggles with China

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While U.S. pundits see Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Hanoi as a way for her to get out of town and avoid awkward questions, the Chinese media responded with sharp commentary accusing her of inciting Vietnam against China. For her part, Harris accused China of “bullying” in the South China Sea. The U.S.-China-Vietnam strategic triangle is certainly on the minds of ordinary Vietnamese.

At a park in central Saigon, some students asked me, “Do you know why we love Trump?”

“Is it because he hates China?” I asked.

“Yeah!” They responded in unison.

Yes, Donald Trump is a Vietnamese folk hero. In fact, Trump is more popular in Vietnam than in any other country except the Philippines.

Why do Vietnamese like Trump? Everyone tells me it is the way he talks, which I am pretty sure means, the way he talks about China. Fearing Beijing’s reaction, the government limits what the Vietnamese can say about this subject. Many are fed up with worrying about what might make China angry. When Trump talks about China, he is a tribune of the Vietnamese people.

The main issue that divides China and Vietnam is the South China Sea, or East Sea, as it is called in Vietnam.

The islands of this sea were unclaimed, or terra nullius, until 1932, when the French annexed them to their colony of Indochina. They drew some lines on a map, made claims, and built a weather station. China replied with its own map claiming the islands in 1935. Vietnam has inherited the French claims.

Even while supporting North Vietnam against the United States during the Vietnam War, China worried that a united Vietnam would turn against them. China backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to threaten Vietnam from both sides. It invaded Vietnam in 1979 in a brief, but bloody conflict. Although Vietnam’s regular army was fighting in Cambodia at this time, the militia units facing the Chinese put up stiff resistance. China hasn’t gone to war with anyone since.

In the 1980s, Vietnam was the Soviet Union’s impoverished colony and a part of an anti-China coalition. With the end of Soviet military and economic aid, Vietnam normalized relations with China in 1991. For decades, Vietnam followed China’s lead in both geopolitics and economics. This policy has become harder to sustain in the Xi Jinping era.

China deployed steel-hulled fishing boats and began ramming wooden Vietnamese fishing boats in 2013. In 2014, Vietnam responded to the presence of a Chinese drilling platform off its coast with a wave of protests. This flailing about had little effect on China.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that the outcroppings in the disputed area were “rocks,” rather than claimable islands. That makes almost the entire sea international waters. The finding was accepted by the United States, but not by either Vietnam or China.

China sank more Vietnamese fishing boats in 2019 and 2020. Vietnam no longer protests such incidents. “The big countries will sort it out,” as one woman in Saigon told me. The Vietnamese air force has been stiffened with the addition of 36 Russian-made Su-30 fighters in recent years, but it has fallen far behind China’s.

The outcome of the dispute over the South China Sea could be determined by Vietnam’s deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay. There is no indication that Vietnam plans to lease the port out. But a naval base at Cam Ranh could dominate the sea and the enormous tonnage of trade that passes through.

The Vietnamese government can be described as efficiently authoritarian. “The police know everything,” an officer told me. They can certainly keep track of where I live, even when I neglect to fill out official paperwork.

The country’s leaders maintain a low profile. Although Nguyen Phu Trong, 77, has been general secretary since 2011, many Vietnamese don’t know who he is. He is described as a Marxist theoretician with a bachelor’s degree in philology.

Nguyen was awarded his third five-year term by the party Central Committee on February 1. But titles mean nothing in a communist system. The best indication of who is in charge is the seating order at party meetings. The country’s 18 Politburo members are predominately party and security people.

While no position of actual leadership is subject to election, the Vietnamese did vote for a National Assembly on May 24. There were propaganda posters urging people to vote, but no information about specific candidates. I asked several Vietnamese about this. None of them had ever voted, planned to vote, or even realized that they could. There were no lines on election day. It’s enough to make you wonder if the official 96 percent turnout figure is exaggerated.

The best that the Vietnamese people can hope for is that their government—whoever is in it—will help defend them against Chinese depredations.