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Not Wanting To Be Overshadowed By China, Vietnam Reaches Out To U.S.


You could say that in East Asia, there are two kinds of countries. There's China, and there are all of China's neighbors. The world's most populous nation is on the rise. Many neighbors do not want to be overshadowed, which is one reason they've reached out to the United States over the years as an ally. That includes even the former U.S. enemy Vietnam, which sends its prime minister to Washington this week. He's meeting President Trump, who is so focused on China that a video once compiled hundreds of times that Trump said China.












INSKEEP: It goes on and on. Michael Michalak once served as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, which gave him a chance to look at East Asian geopolitics and Southeast Asian geopolitics firsthand. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL MICHALAK: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by this morning. What makes a country like Vietnam nervous at a time like this?

MICHALAK: Well, at a time like this, they're nervous for two reasons. One of them would be the economics because TPP was - has been put in the deep freeze.

INSKEEP: Oh, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the big trade deal with China's neighbors essentially.

MICHALAK: That's right. Sure. Absolutely. And then, of course, what happens in the South China Sea.

INSKEEP: Why don't you explain the South China Sea, why that's a big deal?

MICHALAK: Well, the South China Sea is an area of many, many different overlapping claims for islands. In the South China Sea and underneath the South China Sea, of course, there's a lot of raw materials. There are very rich fishing grounds there, so there are some economic concerns in the South China Sea as well.

INSKEEP: So when we hear stories - and we've had them on the program from time to time - about the Chinese turning reefs into islands, building airstrips or drilling for oil in places where it's not allowed. Is Vietnam one of the victims of all of that?

MICHALAK: I think you could say that. Yes, that's right, particularly in the Spratly Islands. There have even been some conflicts between Chinese forces and Vietnamese forces.

INSKEEP: Risk of war here?

MICHALAK: I would say not. I would say not, but certainly a lot of what you might call rubbing.

INSKEEP: Rubbing. And so what does Vietnam want from the United States then?

MICHALAK: Well, from the United States, Vietnam is looking for two things. One of them is a very stable and continuing to expand economic relationship. Secondly, they would like to see the United States remain in the - Southeast Asia, acting as a balancing power to balance out China.

INSKEEP: How is the United States doing that under the Trump administration?

MICHALAK: Well, I mean, since they've not really been much of a Trump administration yet, I think that it's a little bit too early to say. The fact that we have done some freedom of navigation operations is about - is a positive thing. The fact that Trump has sent Mattis and Vice President Pence out to Asia...

INSKEEP: The defense secretary, James Mattis, yeah. Go ahead.

MICHALAK: ...Correct - shows that I think he's beginning to realize that Asia and particularly Southeast Asia is very important. So I think we're going in the right direction.

INSKEEP: But help me figure out these two things you mentioned. There's economics, and there's security.


INSKEEP: President Obama connected them. He said we have this rising nation China. And one of the things we want to do is make sure that China's neighbors are actually bound to us, bound to the United States. Therefore, Trans-Pacific Partnership, let's do a big trade deal, which President Trump canceled. Did that make it impossible or more difficult to keep U.S. allies on the U.S. side?

MICHALAK: Well, it's complicated, as I'm sure many people have told you. We - everybody in that region has got a relationship with China. There's no way you can not have a relationship with China. How you do that in terms of which areas do we compete in and which areas are we complimentary in is a very delicate balancing act.

I think that the United States has been doing this balancing act ever since Nixon opened up the doors to China. Vietnam has been doing it for something like a couple of thousand years. So I don't know how good they are at it, but so far they seem to have been able to live with China. They always say, you know, we can choose our friends, but we can't choose our neighbors. And sometimes the Canadians say that about us too, but...


INSKEEP: You're saying the Vietnamese are not going to cave in and become a Chinese satellite just because the TPP was cancelled.

MICHALAK: Absolutely correct. Absolutely correct.

INSKEEP: Would you just give us a picture of what it's like to be there? Because this is a country that most Americans know for the Vietnam War...


INSKEEP: ...Know as battlefields and as an enemy. When you get there as an American, how are you treated now?

MICHALAK: Well, Vietnam is no longer a war, it's a country. I think that that's very important to understand. And the Vietnamese - last time a poll was taken, somewhere above 80 percent of Vietnamese people have a very positive outlook towards the United States, which is greater than the same poll taken in the United States. So I think...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) What changed? What changed?

MICHALAK: Well, I think what changed is that they looked around and tried to figure out, how can we develop ourselves after this devastating war? The United States was willing to help. And I think that they see the United States as a source of markets, as a source of technology and as a source of this balancing power relationship with - against China. They - the Chinese and the Vietnamese have always had a very suspicious relationship of each other.

INSKEEP: And they've fought wars against each other.

MICHALAK: Oh, lots. I mean, for a thousand years, Vietnam was a part of China. And that thousand years is punctuated throughout by rebellions from Vietnam.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, if you're President Trump and you're focused on things like trade and American jobs, what is the opportunity - if any - with the arrival of Vietnam's prime minister in the United States?

MICHALAK: Well, I think there the opportunity is to continue to build a relationship with them. We have many - we are - Vietnam has been, I think, the fastest growing export market for the United States over the past two years. It has a potential to be a very strong power within ASEAN and within Southeast Asian nations and a leader there.

INSKEEP: ASEAN, that's an association of Southeast Asian nations. Go on.

MICHALAK: Correct and continues to be a leader in Southeast Asia. So I think that the future looks very bright for our relationship with China - I mean with Vietnam.

INSKEEP: Ambassador - there you go. Well, maybe both, who knows?


INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: Michael Michalak once served as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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