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The Empire Returns: U.S. in Southeast Asia

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The headline from Bloomberg was a bleep in last month's news cycle: "Cam Ranh Bay Lures Panetta Seeking Return To Vietnam Port." But that bleep has become something of a Yellow Alert in Southeast Asia, with this new headline -- "Clinton Landmark Visit to Laos."

If Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the old U.S. base in Vietnam since the war ended, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Laos, a country that was most heavily bombed during that war. She followed up with a visit to Cambodia where the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] talk was taking place, and its centerpiece was the dispute over the South China Sea.

The South China Sea carries over more than half of the world trade. Under it lie untold oil pockets and natural gas, the stuff that could make or break an empire for the next 100 years. China, unfortunately, claims almost nearly all of it. No resolution came out of the talk, but the United States certainly has more than demonstrated its new strategy of detente in the region.

For long-time Indochina observers, the developing story is one full of irony, and a signal for a major shift in the long, if arduous, U.S.-Indochina relations.

Nearly four decades have passed, but America is barely recovered from its psychic wounds. Vietnam, after all, was our "hell in a small place." It spelled America's ignominy. The country known for its manifest destiny was soundly defeated by what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called a "fourth-rate power."

Still, here we are, at the turn of the millennia, seeking a return.

Yet, from the point of view of national interests, perhaps it cannot be helped. The futures of empires are in the balance. This is perhaps why while China practices soft power diplomacy in distant shores -- in Iran, Latin America, Africa, for example --it exerts a kind of 18th-century gunboat diplomacy in order to secure natural resources in the Pacific Region. It arrested fishermen from other countries for fishing in recognized open waters. It sabotaged Vietnam's oil exploration ships by cutting their cables. It engaged in a two-month standoff with the Philippines in an area called Scarborough Shoal, until heavy storms drove fishing vessels from the area. Despite protests, it is claiming almost the entire South China Sea as its own territory, all the way to Borneo.

If China achieves its goal, no doubt it'll be the most well-placed country in the world both in terms of maritime strategy, as well as access to much-needed natural resources.

It is why the United States has moved from a strategy of appeasement toward one of detente. Hillary Clinton said it as much in an essay last November in Foreign Policy titled "America's Pacific Century," which came with this sub-headline: "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action":

In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values," she went on to say. "One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific region.

Since then the United States has sent troops to occupy Australia's northern region, put a wedge between China and Myanmar by renewing diplomatic ties with Myanmar and urging democratic reforms -- which took place seemingly overnight once America re-entered the picture. Hillary Clinton went to the Burmese capital of Rangoon last December and held hands with a freed Aung San Syu Kyi, the celebrated Nobel Laureate who was under house arrest for 15 years, but has since won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese parliament.

Panetta followed up with Vietnam last June. The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the area, the Secretary of Defense was eyeing an old American naval base -- Cam Ranh Bay. The base was once a strategic and major hub of American military activities in the region, and a part of the equation for the United States to go to war on Vietnam. His visit was the climax in the deepening military ties between the two countries, which began when U.S. naval ships visited Vietnam in 2003 (with a former boat person who escaped from communist Vietnam as a child but who became an American naval captain commandeering one of the ships) and culminated in joint military exercises in November of last year, despite China's protest.

Hanoi, for its part, went on to boldly ask Panetta to lift the ban of lethal weapon sales on Vietnam. It desperately needs American high-grade weaponries in order to be a viable military force.

But longtime observers are saying Vietnam is playing a dangerous game. Hanoi knows too well you cannot ask favors of Uncle Sam without giving something back in return. It is hoping Cam Ranh Bay would do. But in communist Vietnam there's a saying, "Follow China, lose the country. Follow America, lose the Party." Its meaning is all to clear to those who follow Vietnam's trajectory since the thaw of the Cold War. Beijing exerts extraordinary power over Hanoi in order to keep it from going democratic, while wrestling territorial and sea rights from Vietnam at the same time. But if its ties to the United States are deepening further, Vietnam might become another Myanmar in which democratic reforms might really take place and the communist party would face serious political oppositions (with possible U.S. support) on the home front. The same could be said about Laos now that Hillary Clinton has declared deepening ties there as well.

For Beijing, the sudden shift of alliances from its southern neighbors is a real threat, a kind of reverse domino effect, if you will, in which communist countries slowly renege their allegiance to the Middle Kingdom and pay homage to the United States instead. This sea change of alliances would mean that China's expansionist designs would be seriously challenged both on land and sea, and it might even have domestic implications. After all, if the Burmese, Vietnamese and even Laotians can have free elections, why not the Chinese?

But it will still be a while for the U.S. armed fleet to dock at its old base of Cam Ranh. Deterrence in the Pacific region is a must, given the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea and the untapped natural resources. But with the Pentagon hobbled by serious budget cuts, the ongoing recession at home and an exorbitant war in Afghanistan, returning to Vietnam seems far away.

Analysts, too, wonder if the United Stares, given its limited capabilities to deal with Chinese long-range missiles that could destroy its forward bases in the region, really has the military might or political will for a real confrontation in the South China Sea. Or whether political and economic maneuverings, despite all the recent saber rattling, remain its only and best options.


New America Media editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short story, is due out in 2013.