A large proportion of the American presidential debate has been concerned with security politics. However, one major issue has gotten little attention. The growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea has made its neighbors increasingly anxious and a military escalation in the region would have severe global consequences. The most anti-Chinese country in the region is Vietnam and steps for military co-operation between Washington and Hanoi is seen as a rational strategy for both parties.
Both American presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have pointed to defeating ISIS as a key priority in improving international security. But from a global security perspective a much more potent threat can be found in the South China Sea. In June, an American spy plane was held off by two Chinese jet fighters over the South China Sea, making United States Secretary of State John Kerry caution China from further provocations. The United States is not alone in its tense relations with China on the South China Sea issue. A report from the Pew Research Center in 2014 indicates that Vietnamese citizens are the most anti-Chinese population in Asia and 30% view the United States as Vietnam’s most important military ally. Their main concern regarding China is its regional ambitions, especially those in the South China Sea. Dr. Tran Truong Thuy from the Vietnamese Institute for East Sea Studies stresses that Vietnam welcomes the United States to empower the country’s position by a stronger air and marine defense.
While the United States has longstanding bilateral military agreements with countries such as Japan and Thailand, the relationship with Vietnam is more complex. Talking about American-Vietnamese relations often bring us back to the Vietnam War fought in the 60s and 70s. But during the last decades American-Vietnamese relations have improved rapidly due to China’s assertive foreign policy. Both the United States and Vietnam have opened up towards each other in an attempt to limit China’s power in the region. In spite of the bloody history between the two countries it is evident that both the United States and Vietnam would benefit from co-operation.
“China will not back off,” says Dinh, who fought the Chinese in the Vietnamese-Chinese border war of 1979. “For over a thousand years they have tried to dominate us and the East Sea1 is just the latest attempt. We need a strong ally and America is the best choice. Clinton is a friend of Vietnam and I hope she will become the next President.”2
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a key role in the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy, which was initiated in 2009. Clinton’s tough approach to China’s regional ambitions has made her a symbol of hope among many Vietnamese, while she is seen as problematic in Beijing. According to the Asia expert Douglas Paal, who worked in both the Reagan and the Bush Senior administrations, Clinton is highly unpopular in China. Since the Chinese government declared the South China Sea a “core interest” in 2009, claiming 90% of the water body in the South China Sea, few believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping is open to any sort of compromise on the issue. This is also Clinton’s reason for a hawkish approach, something she explains in her memoir Hard Choices.
“We can trust Hillary Clinton,” says Han, as we share some steamed tofu with fish sauce in the outskirts of Hanoi. “Clinton has a long career in politics and she is aware of the danger with China. China is a powerful country and they will take over the East Sea at all costs.”2
Even though Donald Trump has condemned the illegal Chinese island construction in the South China Sea, his criticism towards countries like Japan, one of the United States’ closest allies, has resulted in critique from British, South Korean, Canadian and Japanese diplomats. General Philip Breedlove, a top official in the U.S. Army, has even declared that American allies are increasingly worried about the outcome of the presidential election.
While one might disregard non-American opinions on the American presidential election as irrelevant, the fact is that the South China issue in particular may have severe repercussions globally. A third of the world’s oil and half of the world’s liquefied gas pass through the South China Sea annually, along with approximately half of the world’s maritime trade. American policymakers are aware of the conflict’s acceleration and the region has become an arena for power struggle between the United States and China.
As turmoil in Iraq, Syria and even Ukraine has stolen most of the media attention over the last couple of years it is understandable that little focus has been directed towards the South China Sea during the American presidential race. However, this year, the Telegraph refers to the South China Sea as “the most dangerous fault-line in the world” and Chinese media calls on the citizens to be ready for military confrontation with the United States. In this light one might pose the question if the American voter should have gotten the opportunity to hear how the 45th President of the United States plans to handle a future international crisis.
1The East Sea is the terminology used for the South China Sea in Vietnam
2Quotes from interviews conducted by the author in 2015