Apr 20, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

This is one of the few topics where I probably know more than the average internet person! I live in Vietnam -- I've been here for many years at this point. This is a pretty good summary of the current status quo. Related: last night I taking a Grab motorbike taxi home and the driver asked where I was from. I told him. "I love <country X>!" And then the non-sequitor, "I hate China! Especially the Chinese government."

But I think Noah needs to fine tune the call to action a bit. There's basically zero "grudge" in an American-Vietnamese politics that I've ever been able to detect. Trump labelled Vietnam a currency manipulator (Biden recently undid it) but that seemed more a vague "Asian countries, trade war, don't just stand there, do something" response than anything else.

America has put essentially zero official pressure on Vietnam for any human rights stuff. Just last week four people were sentenced to 10 years in prison for "anti-state propaganda" and I'm willing to bet you had no idea. Neither American embassy officials nor American press said anything about it.

So I guess I feel like it is just..."Keep doing what you're already doing". But I'd be curious to hear ideas for something more proactive than that. So here are a few random thoughts:

The US should become the #1 source for government grants/investments. (I think it is Japan, right now ... I don't actually know why Japan invests so much in Vietnam.)

The US should work harder to get its companies involved in infrastructure projects. This is hard because the US sucks at infrastructure. But the recent Hanoi metro was built by a Chinese company. That's the opposite of what you want if you're the US. Roads, airports, metros ... it is all being doing by Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and German companies. I can't think of a single US company doing anything with infrastructure.

The US has a lot of expertise being on the cutting edge of environmentalism. And not in a scolding "you're so bad, stop polluting" way. But in a "Yes, we also once set a polluted river on fire and had toxic dumps and cities didn't have clean water" way. The US is helping clean up Agent Orange and remove land mines but a) that's tied to the American War (and being done by the US military, AFAIK) and b) there's so much more that could be done. Even in Saigon basically no household drinks tap water. There's central water treatment but rusty pipes and rusty storage tanks means it is often contaminated by E. coli by the time it gets to the tap.

Food safety is a huge problem in Vietnam and the US has tons of expertise. Vietnam gets a ton of fruit & vegetable from China. Even though everyone doesn't trust it. America loves farm subsidies. Why not subsidize sending American fruit & vegetables to Vietnam and cut the dependence on Chinese imports?

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Apr 20, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Yes, yes, the alliance makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider Japan's huge investment in the country (at times Japan has been the number one investor in Vietnam). Many many Vietnamese (including a good neighbor of mine) come to Japan for technical training/a college education.

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Apr 20, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

'export-led development strategy that worked so well for South Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan.'

Did you mean to say Malaysia? Studwell kept using Malaysia as an example of how not to do industrial policy, albeit he believes better that than not doing IP at all.

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Having visited Vietnam, I couldn't agree more. And reading Embers of War what's the painful reminder of just how much Vietnam wanted to be friends with the US, but fell victim to our Cold War paranoia. They saw us as a natural ally. Ho Chi Minh wrote to every US president starting with Woodrow Wilson. His outreach to the US was so much greater than any ties to communism. We forced Vietnam to ally with Russia. What a big mistake to do the same thing now with China!

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I seriously can't believe some of the arguments put forth here. So are you admitting that the human rights issue is selectively weaponized against the US's strategic foes and ignored for allies? Voices calling out Vietnamese human rights abuses should be simply ignored? Just like a blind eye is turned to the Saudis? Unbelievable. This is called hypocrisy and it is not a sustainable policy.

Furthermore, Noah seems ignorant of Vietnam's policy of not joining military alliances against other countries. Whatever the tension between China and Vietnam, they are neighbors and both countries know they are geographically wed to one another and must learn how to get along. This policy of no military alliances is well established and well known. They don't want to antagonize China for obvious reasons. They also want to maintain strategic arms' length from both super powers.

Washington's hopes to sign up Vietnam to its China containment strategy have gone no where. And this is an avenue that remains closed due to Vietnam's stringent policy to not gang up on any nation. No amount of wishful thinking will coopt the Vietnamese into a provocative posture against a neighbor.

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Jesus Christ, honestly, how can any person be this naive? Every single piece on global politics - particularly Asia - is tragically ignorant. Alliance with Vietnam? Seriously? Have you consulted an atlas?

First of all, public sympathies don't matter in geopolitics. That Vietnamese people may have greater fondness for USA is literally completely meaningless, because the reality of the matter is that Vietnam is bordering China and USA will never ever come to aid Vietnam in any conflict with the PRC. It's just a geographic reality. It doesn't matter how many aircraft carriers, submarines and nuclear warheads you have - it just won't happen.

Ultimately, China is going to buy Vietnam. Because of its proximity - both geographic and cultural - China can offer Vietnam everything while USA can offer very little. Tangible infrastructural investment is very easy to conduct by Chinese companies, which are just across the border and have experience that can be transplanted to Vietnam at a low cost overnight. US can't even build a decent railway at home, while the highways are crumbling.

Territorial disputes are a minor issue when you have a market of 1.4 billion people and a government willing to both finance and carry out critical investments in your country.

America may have given the world the smartphone, but China gave the world the cheap smartphone - which is why even consumer products dominate local market and created a fertile ground for modern technologies and many successful startups.

There's literally nothing the US can offer Vietnam. Accepting the country's exports? Seriously? Is that supposed to do it? Vietnamese have China just across the border, while Chinese investors are bringing in money to use Vietnam as a detour to American market already. Lots of Vietnamese exports are Chinese exports. Opening up to them even wider is not bringing Vietnam closer but allows Beijing to dodge any restrictions the US may be willing to put on the country - while aiding it to vassalize Vietnam in the process.

Seriously, do you even understand what's going on in Asia?

The "100 million people" argument is laughable too. Vietnamese economy is smaller than Singapore. It's not 15th century, it's not even early 20th century, masses of people don't matter and have no meaning other than cheap labor force that the US itself would find hard to employ there anyway for the reasons I mentioned above.

Vietnamese people are brave but they're not suicidal. What in the world would they possibly gain by allying themselves with America, which wouldn't even come to their aid in case of a war with China? Just look at the map, for crying out loud. USA can't even meaningfully defend Taiwan at this point and you're suggesting it should draw another country into a quasi-defense alliance?

This is why America lost Philippines too - even Duterte isn't so dumb not to understand that China is a stone's throw away and America is thousands of miles and its only interest is to contain Beijing.

Talking about economic cooperation across the Pacific is another lunacy. USA is not a totalitarian regime with vast ownership of state-enterprises and banks, dishing out favorable business deals for geopolitical leverage. American companies are private and they too have to hedge their risks. Most of them are not interested in going into uncertain markets, let alone provide investments that would meaningfully change the lives of the local population.

Which is also how the West lost Africa to China, having spent decades sending aid and building mines, but hardly providing the necessary infrastructure to support it, that the local economies could benefit from as well. China did - hence the roads, railways, airports, harbors that support the Chinese grand design of a string of pearls around the Indian Ocean. But China can go in and offer loans, infrastructural expertise, equipment and end to end execution. American companies won't do that - they will fly over and build a mine to get whatever they want out of it. They won't be doing anything else and US government does not have such capabilities either - neither financial nor executive to perform any such action or even offer multibillion dollar incentives to private enterprises to go in and do it on the taxpayers' dime. China does, which is why it can do things Europe and America can't. Even Japanese are better at it than the West.

You have no idea what you're talking about. There will never ever be Vietnamese alliance with the USA. There may be lukewarm, diplomatic sympathy to show China that the country has some alternatives - but that's about it.

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One problem. The classical liberal concept of "individual freedom" is delusional.

Marxists know that community cohesion fostered by rule of law (but not eg "Sharia law"; see former Islamist terrorism in Xinjiang) is necessary before freedom can be secured. China's youth are increasingly showing preference for their own system of government. Speaking of freedom, how's things in Minneapolis tonight?

I expect China to keep growing at a faster rate than the US, simply because intelligent public sector intervention in private sector free markets (aka "socialism with Chinese characteristics") is a superior development model to private self-interested "invisible hand" free markets with numerous examples of market failure (eg Texas not connected to the US grid, in an artic freeze...)

And China is bigger than the US and its allies put together. After 4000 years of continuous recorded history with a single language, China has no designs for "expansionism"; the BRI is an much needed global economic development model that the US was too self-interested to initiate, because it is more concerned to maintain global hegemony.

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I've been high on Vietnam for a while. They have the potential to punch way above their weight, much like Japan.

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You basically want Vietnam to privatize, so the West can loot the country as it did with Eastern European countries after the fall of USSR. Today, Japan is also being looted by the West after the bubble collapse that led to the neo-liberalization and privatization of Japan under Koizumi era onward.

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Noah, if you have a moment, perhaps you could take a look at my fairly extensive post response tucked away in the depths below and see if you think it's something with which you'd like to engage. Granted, not everyone warms to the challenge of developing policy frameworks. But you might :-) Mark Salter

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"And each of those countries eventually became free and democratic — even more so than the U.S., at this point. Their American alliances probably helped with that transition"

I'd be very interested in reading more about what works and what doesn't in liberalizing a nation.

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I find it hard to see how American alliances are a major contributor to liberalization when social movements have been instrumental in dismantling the countries' authoritarian systems. The Japanese New Left, the People Power Revolution, the Minjung Movement, the Reformasi, hell, maybe even the Sunflower Revolution. Unless Vietnam has a strong civil society that's instrumental in forming a strong liberal political culture (which I doubt so, coming off of anecdotes of local critics about how much the current system is supported by common Vietnamese), this "human rights" take comes off as disingenuous.

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Good post. I'm reminded of an interview with the American diplomat John Paton Davies Jr.: "I think that we have handled China so badly, because China is the natural balance against Russia in Asia and Vietnam [laughs] is the natural balance against China in East Asia. We fought with both."

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What you fail to consider is that Vietnam might not want an alliance with the USA. While they do want to hedge against China, they seem eager to keep channels open with their fellow Communists and with Russia. I can't see Vietnam getting any closer to the USA unless China makes a major provocation, like it did with India.

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Interesting comparison between US policy toward Cuba and Vietnam. I grew up in Florida, not far from the Cuban community, and now live in southern California, not far from the very large Vietnamese community here. They're very different -- and not just in the obvious ways. It's interesting how much more flexible the local Vietnamese community is regarding US policy toward Vietnam, compared to the rigid opposition of the Cuban-American community to most efforts to improve relations with Cuba.

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