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The Democracy Fix for the South China Sea

By Nguyen Dan Que and Al Santoli
16 August 2010
The Wall Street Journal Asia

China is once again mixing belligerent rhetoric with military exercises, sending shudders through Southeast Asian capitals. At the heart of these words and actions is the claim that the entire South China Sea -- through which nearly 50% of all international trade must transit -- is exclusive Chinese territory. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly challenged these claims at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations' meeting in Hanoi. Calling freedom of navigation a "national interest of the United States," Mrs. Clinton called for multilateral efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

As far as they go, Mrs. Clinton's words are most welcome. They also reflect a real congruence of interests between Washington and Hanoi. This is particularly true at a time when China has just conducted military exercises in the South China Sea that are arguably the largest in the history of the People's Liberation Army Navy. China has a history of harassing, sometimes fatally, Vietnamese fishermen in the Sea, especially around the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos that are claimed by both countries.

Yet even amid these interests, one critical point of realism is conspicuously missing from U.S. policy: The recognition that only a free and democratic Vietnam can be a reliable partner for peace in this region.

Plainly the U.S. is counting on its growing friendship with Vietnam to offset China's worrying moves in the region. At an Asean press conference, Mrs. Clinton was effusive in her praise of the Vietnamese government: "The extraordinary economic progress, the strengthening of institutions that we've seen, are encouraging," she said. "Both South Korea and Vietnam are very important models for other countries around the world."

But such statements overlook a central fact: Vietnam is far more similar to Beijing than to Washington. Both are nominally communist regimes that repress their people. For all the advances Vietnam has made, freedom of information -- particularly Internet communication -- and freedom of expression under all forms are harshly controlled and suppressed.

As with China, so long as a country's political institutions remain unfree, even astounding economic growth does not preclude a belligerent attitude or other foreign-policy blunders overseas. When unfree governments lack democratic legitimacy at home, they have to find other ways to justify their rule to their own people. This is especially the case with Vietnam and China now that they no longer hew strictly to the communist economic ideology that once justified their dictatorships.

In China's case, this phenomenon coupled with its rising economic power make a noxious brew. In terms similar to the Japanese World War II "Greater Asian Co- Prosperity Sphere," Beijing claims that its dominance is in the interest "of all Asians." And China is in no mood to defer to the U.S., which it accuses of "plotting against China." For those of us in the region, these are troubling words. As China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi put it to one Asean foreign minister "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's a fact." When a Chinese official speaks that way, we pay attention.

Vietnam's lack of democracy so far has not led to similar belligerence -- if anything, Hanoi has been too shy about condemning China's behavior -- but does raise other questions for Hanoi's new partners in America. Throughout our history, Vietnamese nationalism has enabled us to defeat Chinese forces many times our size. The first national hero who stood up against China was Ngo Quyen. In 938, he declared Vietnam's independence after a millennia of colonization. Likewise in the 18th century, a peasant named Nguyen Hue inflicted a great defeat on China after it invaded our land.

Significantly, in each of these cases it was possible to mobilize Vietnamese to fight for their homeland in part because enlightened rulers made an effort to include the people in national policy decisions. Indeed, the most famous democratic act in Vietnamese history was the Dien Hong Plebiscite inaugurated by King Tran Nhan Ton in 1284 in response to the Mongol invasions. At the Dien Hong palace he gathered representatives from all parts of the nation and put to them this question: Surrender, or resist? With the people on his side, Vietnam resisted.

Today Vietnam faces a new threat from a remilitarized China. Our history suggests the U.S. has good reason to believe that Vietnamese nationalism can be useful in maintaining stability in a strategically critical part of the world. Vietnamese nationalism, however, has always been strongest and most reliable when the Vietnamese government was on the side of the people. If Mrs. Clinton and the U.S. want a true, long-term partner for peace and stability in this region, they would do well to seek it in a free and democratic Vietnam.

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Dr. Que, who lives in Cholon, Vietnam, is a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Mr. Santoli is president of the Asia America Initiative and author of "Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War" (Random House, 1982).

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