Nuclear weapons solve certain problems. They cause a host of other problems, true. For a small state in a high-crime neighborhood, however, nothing guarantees survival like a bomb in the basement. Whether those states are willing to pay the costs of sanctions and ostracism for a bomb depends on their security situation.
Vietnam’s security is very bad, and the country is all alone.
Hanoi’s recent maritime spat with China has illustrated its vulnerability. Since early May, when China dropped an oilrig in the Vietnam-claimed area of the South China Sea, 24 Vietnamese ships have reportedly been damaged and one was sunk by Chinese vessels. China also contests Vietnam’s claim to the Spratly Islands to the south, as part of its unilateral “nine-dash” line that claims almost the entire body of water.
As things stand, Vietnam probably won’t win this argument. All the gauzy phrases of dispute settlement that disguise power politics in Europe and America and Latin America – regional cooperation, consultation, harmonization – wear pretty thin in Asia, where politics are defined by China’s disproportionate power. They’re wearing thin in Europe as well, between Maxine Le Pen and the Ukraine crisis, but they’re cheesecloth in Asia.
The Pentagon says Beijing spent more than $145 billion on its military last year. A report from the Stockholm International Peace Institute put the number at $188 billion, almost five times that of its nearest East Asian competitor, South Korea, and by far the second-highest total in the world. For China’s neighbors, those are pretty bad figures, and each has chosen a different coping strategy.
Some, like Myanmar, are already in the tank for Beijing. Some, like Laos, are likely to swing more and more to China’s side. Some, like the Philippines, play the mediator in a bar fight, trying to avoid conflict while staying fundamentally on the American side. And some, like Japan, toe the line.
Vietnam falls towards the Japanese end of the spectrum. Probably tragically, because it has a few weaknesses that Japan doesn’t. The basic power imbalance, of course, is terrible. Though both China and Vietnam are likely to get richer and stronger over the next decade, China has 14 times the population and 37 times the economy of its neighbor. Unlike Japan, it’s also not an island. China may be developing naval assets at an alarming rate, but it is still fundamentally a land power. Water is generally a much safer barrier than a line on a map.
The most pressing problem, however, is that Vietnam is in a singular geopolitical situation. It’s a status-quo power and essentially a supporter of the current US-led world order in Asia. Anti-status quo countries like Russia, China, Syria, and Iran are all agitating for larger or smaller changes in the international system – more territory, more prestige, less Israel – but for Vietnam, change can only be bad. Every day that passes means China gets relatively stronger and Vietnam’s security situation gets worse.
However, unlike other status-quo countries such as South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, or Australia, Vietnam is outside the US security blanket. It’s not part of a NATO, let alone a bilateral defense treaty with America. Relations with the U.S. have improved dramatically over the past twenty years, but strategically, Vietnam is still on its own.
If it wants to keep confronting China, Hanoi essentially has three choices. First, it could deepen its relationship with the United States and hope to be eventually brought under its nuclear umbrella. This seems unlikely. For one thing, Vietnam is still a communist dictatorship, which the non-governmental organization Freedom House rates as quite definitely not free. While America can certainly be friendly with unfree countries, especially those with oil, there is almost always a limit to cooperation at the high end. And security guarantees are what we would call the “high end.”
Vietnam could also build a closer security relationship with other status quo states in Asia such as Japan, which seems more than ready. In his speech to Asian leaders in May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered support for Vietnam in its maritime dispute with China. He echoed that in an op-ed last week, and elsewhere, discussions have begun with Australia for tighter military cooperation
However, it’s not clear if Japanese support could balance out China’s overwhelming conventional and nuclear advantages. The Vietnamese did manage to balance out America and France’s overwhelming conventional and nuclear advantages. But China is next door and on the upswing of its power, not fighting on the other side of the world in an uncomfortable enough echo of colonialism. It’s still risky.
Which brings us to Vietnam’s last option: building the bomb. Acquiring a nuclear capability wouldn’t immediately put Vietnam on the same footing as China, no more than North Korea is with the United States. However, it would guarantee the regime’s survival from external threats, and give Beijing pause when it feels like playing border games.
There would be costs, of course. Diplomatic snubs, a bout of sanctions, a great deal of more-in-sorrow-than-anger language from Scandinavians at multilateral forums. But Pakistan and India went nuclear and survived. So would Vietnam. A responsible leader, entrusted with his or her country’s safety and planning for the future, would have to at least consider it.
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