The Vietnam ploy in the Pacific Century’s Game of Thrones

Tuesday, 5 June, 2012

At the end of April, as Rainy Day hovered over the Gulf of Thailand, our thoughts turned to regional security. It’s a topic that’s exercising quite a lot of minds at the moment. Take Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defense. He delivered his first keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the weekend and captured the headlines with his “60/40” proposal. By 2020, he said, the US Navy will rearrange the deployment of its forces from today’s 50/50 percent division between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between the two oceans. Whether this is a “pivot” or a “rebalancing” is a matter for those who study the minutiae of foreign policy, but regardless of the lexis it is further confirmation that the Pacific Century is upon us.

Vietnam today, and yesterday To emphasize the shift, Leon Panetta yesterday became the first US Secretary of Defense since the Vietnam War to visit Cam Ranh Bay, a former American naval base. According to the Defense Department, his agenda includes discussions about closer military cooperation between the US and Vietnam. And this brings us neatly to Robert Kaplan‘s article in the June issue of The Atlantic: “The Vietnam Solution: How a former enemy became a crucial U.S. ally in balancing China’s rise.”

Kaplan offers a panoramic tour d’horizon covering culture, history, economics and geography and anyone wishing for a snapshot of where Vietnam stands today would benefit greatly from reading the article. “In any case,” he concludes, “the fate of Vietnam, and its ability not to be Finlandized by China, will say as much about the American capacity to project power in the Pacific and around the world in the 21st century as Vietnam’s fate did in the 20th.” Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay is an indication that the projection has commenced in earnest.

An immediate challenge of the Pacific Century is the conception of an American approach that assures China of its regional role and at the same time protects Japan, Vietnam, South Korea Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines. This is a chess game that will require great finesse. A wrong move could see any number of Asian states siding with China, while a careful strategy could ensure stability and peace. Or, as Walter Russell Mead puts it in Game of Thrones: US Pushes Naval Buildup In Asia: “The US is not interested in containing or isolating China, but is seeking to establish a framework within which China can grow and develop in peace with its neighbors and the world.”

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