A Friendship Without Limits?
Sino-Vietnam embrace follows changes in dramatis personae, not to the West’s liking
It is possible to speculate that Russia’s special military operations may not have been launched on February 24 2022 had American/Western drum beating to lure Russian into Ukraine for a proxy war not reached a crescendo, the clashing of multiple cymbals et al, throughout February.
The West began to froth in the mouth after Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin signed MOUs without numbers in Beijing on February 4 and announced in ringing tones: “this is a friendship without limits.” In the given circumstances, the one-two punch administered by the Sino-Russian duet straight on the West’s chin, rattled Washington and London in that order. The two Capitals had barely recovered from the deep embarrassment of the Afghan debacle in August.
Deafening chant of “America in decline, America in decline” which began in 2008 after the fall of Lehman Brothers and peaked after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, caused the Washington neo-cons to see red. What choice did they have? To watch Western hegemony evaporate, yielding to a more equitable multi polar world?
Even though the Western media held onto the myth of Western unity in Ukraine, European politicians began to sustain two parallel lines – one for their domestic audience and another for Brussels and Washington.
Victor Orban of Hungary takes the championship for his wicked candour. “European Union” he said, “is a car with four tyres punctured.” Emanuel Macron of France was not quite as harsh. He invited all his diplomats and senior officials for a confidential meeting. He asked them to prepare themselves for a new world order.
“After 300 years, Western hegemony was ending.” What he thought of the U.S. contribution during these three centuries is clear from what he told his officials. “During these centuries, France contributed culture, Britain industry and the U.S. war.”
The “friendship without limits” between Beijing and Moscow had set the cat among the pigeons. This Sino-Russian cohesion had a magnetic effect on powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia and a host of countries some of which had traditionally been in the West’s gravitational zone.
India was one such ever since Manmohan Singh’s new liberal economic policies brought it firmly in line with Washington.
The Ukraine war has introduced a certain ambiguity in Indian policy which has earned it kudos from Moscow. The Beijing-Moscow pair has attracted new adherents, whereas the Western camp is restive.
To add to Western anxieties comes a headline from Hanoi: “Vietnam sees a shared future with China.” Nothing sensationally disturbing about the headline but as you delve into exchanges between Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist the language does not touch the hyperbole of the Sino-Russian friendship, but it is close.
Take the Lunar New Year messages the two leaders exchanged.
Xi Jinping: “China and Vietnam are a community with a shared future.”
Trong: Ready to work with Comrade Xi… to carry out strategic communication on theories and practice of both country’s socialist development… and to make sure that the relations between the two parties and countries continuously develop and Reach new heights.”
Vietnam is a story of economic success comparable to China, except that the scales are vastly different. It is a country of 100 million compared to China’s 1.4 billion. But as an economy of 100 million population, it has in recent years shot past Singapore and Hong Kong in its economic efficiency.
The recent Sino-Vietnam embrace follows changes in dramatis personae not to the West’s liking. Two weeks ago Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was forced to resign because in his pro-business momentum, his close circle was implicated in high levels of corruption.
For a decade the Communist Party General Secretary, Trong carried out his anti corruption campaign against Phuc who is identified with Western interests.
A matter of great anxiety in the West is the defeat of pro business elements. This makes the Communist Party of Vietnam as powerful as its opposite number in China.
How different Sino-Vietnam relations were in 1979 when I found myself in the presence of Xuan Thuy, the then Secretary General of the party. The occasion was the Sino-Vietnam war when I learnt some early lessons about the Western media, its professionalism and its biases. It was a different world, media wise.
The global TV networks were inaugurated during Operation Desert Storm in 1992. In 1979, newspapers had considerable credibility – until an event like the Sino-Vietnam war took place.
The Western media did not write purple prose about Chinese victory. Which, in any case, crucially eluded the Chinese making Deng Xiaoping look very silly. He had threatened to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” The Western media fell back on an act of omission: it took no notice of the Battle of Lang Son where the Vietnamese trounced the Chinese.
After Kissinger’s opening with China in 1971, Sino-U.S. relations were in their warmest phase through the 70s. At this stage, it would be a strategic loss for the new US ally to be so roundly beaten by a Soviet ally. With this victory, Vietnam became a global champion – the only country to have defeated three permanent members of the Security Council in the battlefield – France, the US and China.
The ouster of the market oriented Phuc from Vietnam‘s power structure leaves a gap in the Western strategy of encircling China. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the China or the U.S. debate has raged in Vietnamese party circles. After the horrors of the Vietnam War a rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington would have been unthinkable.
Likewise, a Sino-Vietnam entente cordiale would be remote after the 1979 war. When, Vice President K.R. Narayanan visited Vietnam in 1993, among the statesman and victor of three wars with great powers, Vo Nguyen Giap called on him. The inevitable question arose: Vietnam’s long term ally would be the U.S. or China? Giap quipped, as a soldier I have learnt that logistics is crucial for both, war and peace. “China was next door and therefore a manageable long term friend.”