Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Vietnam: the Great Strategic Opportunity

All the usual caveats apply; yes she is officially a communist country. On Freedom House's Freedom Index she scores a 19, right there with Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo ... but one point better than Egypt's 18.

Egypt. You know, the nation that is #4 in foreign aid from the USA, right between Jordan and Iraq. The nation that has everything from M-1 tanks to Apache helicopters and we conduct exercises with on a regular basis? Yes, that Egypt.  

So, yes with the caveats ... but that clearly is not a barrier to good partnerships. Sometimes - within reason - you take the world as it is.

Of course, we fought a long and devastating (especially for the Vietnamese North and South) war that ended almost half a century ago, but we fought two wars with out closest ally, the United Kingdom, so time fixes that too.

Urban Lehner over at Asia Times has a real encouraging article for those who want a refresher on where we stand with one of the stronger nations willing to stand up to the People's Republic of China - Vietnam;

Today Vietnam is one of the largest markets for US ag exports, ranking seventh, eighth or ninth in recent years.

It’s not that the war is completely forgotten. Remains of Americans missing in action in Vietnam continue to be found and returned. The US continues to clean up residues of the Agent Orange herbicide our military used to defoliate jungles and expose enemy hiding places.

If you’ve been to Vietnam since the war, you know that the Vietnamese hold surprisingly few grudges. I spent some time in the country during the 1990s. I never met anyone who showed any sign of hating Americans.

This lack of animosity may be because the Vietnamese won the war. It’s always easier for victors to turn the page. Distance may also make Vietnamese hearts grow fonder. Some are more concerned about the behemoth on their border, China, with which they fought an inconclusive border war in 1979, than they are about the US.

“You’re not our enemy,” a senior Vietnamese official told me in Hanoi on the day the US and Vietnam normalized their diplomatic relations in 1995. “China is.”

Unlike a lot of places in this troubled world, the trends are mostly going in the right direction;

...the lack of negativity towards the US on the part of the Vietnamese people is noteworthy considering the history. There’s even public-opinion polling suggesting many Vietnamese are pro-American.

In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Vietnam topped the international list, with 84% of those polled expressing a favorable view of the US. Some 71% agreed that “It’s good that American ideas and customs are spreading here,” again leading the world list.

In a 2015 Pew poll, 76% of Vietnamese had a favorable view of the US and 95% thought most people are better off in a free-market economy.

The economic benefits Vietnam garners from trading with the US may explain some of the positivity. According to the US Department of Commerce, the US imported $101 billion worth of goods from Vietnam in 2021.

To put $101 billion in perspective, Vietnam’s exports to the US equal a quarter of its gross domestic product. They’re growing rapidly; as recently as 2018 the US only imported $49 billion in goods from Vietnam.

Moreover, Vietnam runs a huge trade surplus with the US. America’s 2021 exports to Vietnam totaled only $11 billion. More than a quarter of them were agricultural.

...and from "the future belongs to those who show up" department, you also have to look at Vietnam's demographics. 

While the PRC, Japan, and Korea are at the starts of a demographic collapse not seen in the modern era - or any era for that matter - Vietnam is actually quite healthy;

They also are right above replacement rate with 2.11 children per woman. That is huge.

Demographics matter. In the next few decades they will soon equal, and eventually pass Japan in population.

While relatively small - all things considered - their GDP growth combined with their population trends, looks solid.

All this is being done in a quasi-communist generally autocratic-lite political and economic structure. Imagine a possible Taiwanization of that economy.

This is the partner (note I did not call them an ally - I don't think they want that) of the future we need.

We will need to meet Vietnam where she is on her terms - don't expect basing rights etc - but her people and her government are sending all the right friendly signals. We should nurture that. We should honor that.

We should gently leverage that in order to complicate any PRC plans for the future.

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