"No one wants to choose between the United States and China"

Last update: 20:45 | 30/10/2016

VietNamNet Bridge - "Reason tells me that Vietnam should not be a member of any military alliance. The Vietnamese have the saying, ‘cattle fight, flies killed’. Never let yourself be trapped between two powers," said Mr. Bui The Giang, Head of the Department for Western Europe-North American Affairs of the Central Committee for External Relations.

VietNamNet introduces the second part of the roundtable discussions with Mr. Bui The Giang and Dr. Anders Corr (Harvard), an international political analyst, a commentator for Bloomberg TV and Finnancial Times.

Part 1: Occupying territory of others does not help one to be a great power


VietNamNet: Mr. Giang mentioned the "Chinese Dream" - a new concept recently introduced by China and suggested that the "Chinese dream" should be deciphered accurately. Chinese Secretary General and President Xi Jinping said the "Chinese dream" was "a national renaissance, raising the standard of living and prosperity of the people, building a better and more prosperous society and strengthening defense power". 

I think one day, we must also have the "Vietnam dream" of a strong and prosperous country. On the other hand, it is probably natural that a rising power wants to find a worthy leadership position. Then why countries in the region, not to mention the world, are so sensitive to the "Chinese dream"?

Bui The Giang: Like the 981 rig incident, I do not feel surprised about the "Chinese dream" because that is part of China's longstanding ambition, which has continued in thousands of years. 

Two days ago, I had a very interesting conversation with the senior political adviser of the Czech President, who was vacationing in Vietnam. We talked about the rapidly growing trade between the Czech Republic and China, a very new phenomenon in his country for decades, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

Previously, the Czech Republic had almost no substantial trade with China. But in the last couple of years, they have come to China, doing business with Chinese entrepreneurs, inviting Chinese investors to the Czech Republic. 

As a result, the volume of trade, investment as well as other economic activities has increased drastically. Why? Because they see China's promising potential in terms of economics.

But what I find interesting is that when he told me in a chatting way, he said, "Giang, do you know that we do business with China without fear that they will occupy our land." I asked him why. 

He replied, "You know, in this world the Czech language is probably the most difficult language to learn." I do not know if he was joking or not to say that maybe the Vietnamese are the only people in the world who can learn and speak Czech as a native.

The question that arises in my mind is: Why does he think of a rising China, a China good for the Czech Republic in terms of economic cooperation that way? He did not answer the question directly but said: I have studied the world map that China has published since ancient times. On that map, the Czech Republic today is just a tiny peninsula of a vast China. Oh my God!”

Dr. Anders Corr: I think the reason, partly, is that China at this moment seems to be pursuing the thinking and behavior of the 19th-century nations, that is, to establish status and influence through the way to expand the territory and the ocean. 

It's an old-fashioned thinking. The only way, in my opinion, can help the world to become more peaceful and better economically grow is to be based on respect for international law. 

Many people still talk about the US and China as strategic rivals in Asia but I do not think so. Given the magnitude of US trade relations with China, I believe that the US does not want anything more than cooperating with China because we want to make money, and they also want to make money.

If China pursues the path of a peaceful power, its development will be great for the whole world and for themselves. And if they pursue the power line by appropriating the territory of another country, with the power of weapons, that would be extremely dangerous. It is now the 21st century and no nation can continue the way of thinking and behavior of the 19th century.

Bui The Giang: I very much like Corr's idea that if all respect for international law, the world will be peaceful, prosperous and happy. But it was the word "IF". Look back to the Second World War that ended less than 70 years ago and then we have witnessed too many wars in so many countries, including my country. 

Since the World War II ended in 1945, Vietnam had to face the war against France, or the First Indochina War, and the American War in Vietnam, also known as the Second Indochina War, in which I was a veteran. 

It was followed by the Northern Border War, but even before that, we had to endure the southwest border war with the Khmer Rouge, a regime that was interesting, then known as Democratic Cambodia.

Today, the international community, the UN is looking for ways to bring the Khmer Rouge to trial. A legal battle costs a lot of money and lasts for many years. 

Yet 40 years ago, when we sent troops into Cambodia at the call of many Cambodians to help them fight the Khmer Rouge, to restore peace and justice, the United States and almost the whole world placed embargo on Vietnam for many years later.

VietNamNet: Giang’s comment reminds me of a rather bitter remark made by a respectable leader that, as a small and medium country, we have experienced the historic lesson that the law lies within the hand of the strong one and even with international law, they also interpret it according to their interests.

Dr. Anders Corr: I believe that in the case of the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea), international law is supporting Vietnam and I believe that the United States will support Vietnam.

But I want to ask Mr. Giang. In 1991 and 1992, the Philippines terminated the contract that leases the US the naval and air base in the Subic Bay and the United States moved the base to Singapore, benefiting Singaporeans as they were given free security. And right after that, China's military spending grew rapidly and massively. 

As they increased their spending on defense, their acts to claim sovereignty over the sea became more assertive. Do you see the cause and effect of the US leaving Subic base and China's increasingly provocative behavior?

Bui The Giang: In fact, the US is returning to the Philippines, of course not at the same level as before. Your question is very interesting and I would like to go back to analyzing an impact of the rig incident. 

In my view, that event has created an incentive for countries in the region to pursue the arms race. I remember that in 2012, US military spending accounted for about 41% of the total military expenditure of the world. 

Last year, it dropped to 37%. Many interpreted these numbers as a cut in US defense spending. But I said: It is impossible, especially if you look at the new defense spending package adopted by the House of Representatives recently, US military spending has increased in absolute terms.

The issue is that the share of US military spending in the world's total military spending is decreasing as many other countries have increased defense spending, especially China. Let’s look at a country with 1.4 billion people. Just increasing $ one dollar of defense cost per capita, how much money will they have? 

From that perspective, we can see why the relative value of US military spending is falling relative to the world. However, that also shows us a very dangerous trend in the region, given what has happened in Syria, Libya, Africa ... not to mention the current developments in Ukraine. 

Asia-Pacific is where the world looks at as an engine of economic growth and a prosperous future, at least from an economic angle. Yet now, the region has spent its money that gets from economic development into military spending. 

Of course, when the money for defense increases, the money spent on development investment will decrease. But the most frightening thing is that a dollar spent on military will come back and take away not only prosperity but also human life with a multiplier. That is why I think the regional arms race is very dangerous.

Dr. Corr: I totally agree with you. A few weeks ago, I met an arms dealer in Asia. He said that it was China's new territorial expansionism that prompted other countries in the region to buy more weapons. 

As I have said before, we are not living in the 1945 period. Now there are nuclear weapons and a variety of advanced weapons. It would be disastrous for all nations in this region if war occurs.

That is why I really admire the approach that Vietnam has chosen for the rig incident, a very cautious approach. It is a way that is not provoking but still consistent enough for the legitimate interests of Vietnam. 

I also think that it is foolish to pour a lot of money into buying weapons when a nation wants to fight against China. Their military strength is superior to that of other countries in the region.

On the other hand, the defense spending rate between the United States and China is 3.6/1 and the US pays more on arms technology than China. So, I think, when China ignores objections or international law, other countries need America as a friend. 

Whenever a Chinese vessel enters illegally into the waters of a particular country, it is advisable to have an American ship with that country's ships to keep track of the Chinese vessel. That's what the Japanese did and they did very well. 

Every time a Chinese aircraft enters the airspace, the Japanese or American send fighting aircraft flying close to Chinese planes. That forced China to restrain. I think that other countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, when getting closer to the US, could look at defense cooperation with the United States. I have also said publicly that US-China military cooperation should end.

Bui The Giang: I want to emphasize a few more points. First, cooperation is always useful if the cooperation in any area can bring stability, peace and confidence among nations. 

When you mentioned military cooperation, I would say that in fact, Vietnam has cooperated with many partners in the world, including the United States, in many areas including defense. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of human and financial resources, we are not able to do as much as we or our partners desire.

Taking evidence of the visits of US military vessels, we only have one trip a year. While you know China, including Hong Kong, how many American warships visit it a year? 50 trips a year!

The Vietnamese, especially veterans, are still very sensitive to military visits. But one thing I can assure you is that when we cooperate with partners, including the United States, we never think of a specific goal to be prevented, such as an invasion or attack from a certain country. 

As I said, throughout history, we have faced too many invasions from too many directions. Just recently, I mentioned Khmer Rouge's attempt to invade Vietnam, a smaller rival than us, and with much less fighting skills than us. 

So, we are not headed for a particular direction but there is only one need to protect our territorial integrity and independence that we have paid too much for. Especially when there are so many things and complicated happenings around us, including risks that may come suddenly from a certain power. So, we are always on guard.


VietNamNet: Regarding America's role in Asia-Pacific, many countries in the region are skeptical about the sustainability and credibility of the Asia rebalancing strategy that Obama's administration is pursuing. How do you see the implementation of this strategy in 2014, especially when the US is torn apart by so many other events in the world such as the Middle East, Ukraine?

Dr. Corr: Yes, there are too many hotspots and risks in the world. And the United States as the world's largest military with top-notch spending on military or in the prescriptive “help us fix the situation, mitigate these dangers”. 

The problem is that the United States is not strong enough to handle everything. I think it is important that allies of the United States must be equal partners and contribute their part.

I have written an article that proposed the US to set up a multilateral military cooperation organization in Asia-Pacific to ensure regional stability and security. At present there are many strong bilateral alliances in Asia but they are not enough.

VietNamNet: I do not believe this idea will work for Asia-Pacific. No country in the region wants to be forced to choose between the United States and China. And they will be reluctant to join a multilateral military alliance, as you suggested, because of the fear that China will see it as an attempt against China and may trigger a stronger response from Beijing.

Bui The Giang: Everyone has his own way of thinking. My thoughts told me that Vietnam should not be a member of any military alliance, at least at this time. 

If you look back on history, you know, such alliances in this region were not sustainable. SEATO, for instance, was founded in the mid-50s, but it lasted only about 10 years. 

We now have some bilateral alliances like the US - Japan, the US - South Korea, the US - the Philippines or the US - Australia and New Zealand. These alliances have historical causes. 

But in this new age, especially after the end of the Cold War, any such move would have a major impact on the regional environment, profoundly affecting the countries concerned, directly or indirectly. Therefore, I do not think that countries like Vietnam should join these alliances.

I think your viewpoint that no one wants to choose between America and China is justified because it is not as simple as love or hate. On the one hand, every nation wants peace and prosperity. 

When it comes to prosperity, we should look at the source of wealth. Both the United States and China are the two largest economies in terms of size. They are all Pacific countries. 

Why not choose both, instead of having to choose either to develop? And if we look at the second factor that I've talked about, it's peace, then we'll have to worry that if either of these two big countries violates your territory, what is the meaning of peace? And how will the other party get involved?

We always remember the lesson: Never let yourself be trapped between two great powers. You know, Vietnamese have a saying like this: “cattle fight, flies killed”.

To be continued…

"No one wants to choose between the United States and China"