Vietnam shows the way forward for Asean

Ba Dinh District, Hanoi, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the National Assembly.

I'm visiting a 77-year-old widow, Cao Ngoc Diep and her family at their ancestral temple-home.

Above one small shrine there's a haunting photograph of her late husband, Cao Minh Phi, killed in Nha Trang in 1968 by the Americans. He was only 28 years old, leaving behind a sweet-faced widow and her four small children - one of the millions of casualties from the Vietnam War.

The English-speaking granddaughter Ngoc shows me around the other intricately carved shrines, many with Chinese inscriptions and crammed with deities and offerings of dragon fruit, cognac and cash-highlighting Vietnam's cultural mish-mash.

Given the recent news about the South China Sea, most people are vocal about China. Indeed, with the border only a 3-hour drive away, relations assume a certain immediacy.

Ngoc says in English: "We are suspicious of the Chinese. We don't like them." Her grandmother, in Vietnamese, nods firmly: "Of course!"

 

The night before, a leading journalist recently returned from the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in Vientiane explained: "We cooperate in business and economics, but when it comes to sovereignty, we fight." Being Vietnamese seems to be inextricably linked with suspicion of China.

It will be interesting to see how Asean responds to China's continued rise. Could the Vietnamese, with thousands of years of living cheek-by-jowl with the Chinese, provide the best template?

In 40 AD, Vietnam's most celebrated national heroines, the Tru'ng Sisters, led a revolt on the backs of war-elephants against the Han dynasty. In the 1400's, the nobleman Le Loi drove out the Ming armies, establishing Vietnam's longest-ruling dynasty. More recently, battle-hardened Vietnamese soldiers repelled invading Chinese troops in 1979.

On the flipside, Vietnamese culture bears heavy Chinese influence. Chinese was the language of imperial Vietnam's courts, literature and elite. The Temple of Confucius in Hanoi is featured on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, accounting for 30% of its imports. In Hanoi's busiest fabric markets, most of the cloth sold is from China. You'll see the familiar "Made in China" logo on books, bowls, belts and everything in between. Even Hanoi's latest infrastructure megaproject, the USD553 million Hanoi Metro, is to be built by Chinese investors.

But the commonalities have not dampened centuries of ill-will. In 2014, protests erupted after China deployed an oil rig in a disputed part of the South China Sea. The two nations also clashed over the Paracels in 1974 and the Spratlys in 1988.

As Dr Tran Cong Truc, former chairman of the government's Committee on Border Issues says: "People find it very difficult to understand how Vietnam and China can both cooperate on an economic front and fight when it comes to sovereignty. To understand it, you must look at the long history between our two countries."

Despite the deep seated suspicion of China, the Vietnamese have remained strategic and level-headed, making allies and choosing their battles carefully.

As the craggy former senior military intelligence operative tells me, this means that nothing is set in stone. Regarding America, for instance, he stresses: "Vietnam will support any country that supports its sovereignty."

The same military men who fought against Americans in their youths are now making deals with their former Cold War nemesis. Indeed, US President Barrack Obama earlier this year announced the lifting of a decades-old embargo on selling arms to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese have also been deepening economic ties with South Korea, Japan and the European Union as they seek lessen their dependence on China.

Their partnership with South Korea has proven particularly rewarding, with the most outstanding example being Samsung's vast USD12 billion investment into Vietnam's electronics industry.

The Vietnamese (unlike the Filipinos) have done an excellent job juggling economic, political, and military interests, keeping China at arm's length while not antagonizing the giant.

So what is the way forward for China and Asean, especially for countries with a similarly mixed bag of ties with Beijing?

One can detect a sense of frustration in Vietnamese officials like Tran on Asean's dithering on the South China Sea: "When the house of a neighbour is on fire, you don't ignore it and think, 'Oh that's his fire, it's not going to spread'. If you don't cooperate, the fire will destroy us all…I really appreciate that the Philippines brought the South China Sea issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. We believe that measures like this with Asean are our best route to resolving the issue while ensuring the stability and prosperity of the region."

China will certainly pay a price if it continues its heavy-handedness with the region.

As Asean countries weigh up their national interest, policymakers ought to look to how the Vietnamese have managed both maintain their independence and honour for so long.

Karim Raslan is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and CEO of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest instalment of his long-running Ceritalah column.