China stung by US-Vietnam embrace

President Obama's reception sent a strong message to the comrades in Beijing. Picture courtesy NYT

President Obama’s reception sent a strong message to the comrades in Beijing. Picture courtesy NYT

The exuberant reception afforded an American president in Vietnam will have been a galling sight for the communist leadership in neighbouring China.

President Obama’s decision to sideline human rights concerns, and stress blossoming economic and strategic ties with Hanoi, sent a message that China cannot ignore.

It underlines the firm belief of Chinese leaders that the US is stepping up a containment strategy to curtail China’s emergence as a rival world power.

The US decision to lift the Vietnam War era arms embargo “exacerbates the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing,” said the famously outspoken Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist party.

“When the U.S. has an urgent need to contain China in the South China Sea, the standards of its so-called human rights can be relaxed,” said the paper in a deeply ironic reference to the repressive impulses of a fellow one-party state.

President Obama’s speech to his Vietnamese hosts, in which he said that large countries should not bully smaller ones, will have been seen as equally hypocritical in Beijing.

Chinese strategists must now consider whether their policy of belligerence and growing militarisation in the South China sea has not been counter-productive.

Most analysts expect, however, a further increase in tension in the disputed waters as China confronts the looming presence of the US navy.

Chinese leaders remain to be convinced that the US has long-term staying power in the region, and they will question how long the policy of “rebalancing”  to Asia will survive the Obama administration.

Strategic considerations paramount

Vietnam emerges, for now, as the big winner, able to leverage its position between the global superpowers to best advantage.

The prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in a rare meeting with foreign journalists, saw no reason to gloat publicly over so clear cut a success in the game of one-upmanship with China.

He stressed Vietnam’s desire for a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes and denied that Vietnam was pursuing a military buildup in the South China Sea.

Analysts are divided on how much practical use the lifting of the US arms embargo will be. Vietnam relies heavily on Russian weapons, and may not have much money for high tech US defence systems and aircraft.

The symbolic power of the rapprochement with Washington, however, shows Beijing how much it has to lose by aggressively pushing its territorial demands.

“Vietnam does not have a militarization policy but we have necessary measures of working together with other countries … to ensure peace, freedom of navigation, aviation and commerce,” said prime minister Phuc.

The failure of President Obama to put much stress human rights, despite his mild indignation over the blocking of some activists invited to a meeting with him, has shown the extent to which strategic considerations are now paramount in Washington.

In comments to the New York Times, Human Rights Watch said that Vietnam did not deserve the closer ties being offered by the US.

“Detaining or preventing civil society from meeting President Obama is not just an insult to the president, it’s also a human rights abuse in itself, a deprivation of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of movement,” said John Sifton of HRW in comments to the newspaper.

It looks like a setback for the small and beleaguered dissident community in Vietnam.

Their best hope is that a further alignment between Vietnam and the US will ease paranoia that Washington is out to undermine the Communist party’s rule and incite disorder.

An easing of fears about foreign based subversion could, in the most optimistic scenarios, lead to a softening of repression that has seen activists harassed, beaten in the streets and locked up for long terms in prison camps.