Impressions of Indochina

I’m just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China’s Rise and ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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558933_103579231_12.jpg

I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.

My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).

Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.

I’m just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China’s Rise and America’s Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.

My impressions? First, there’s clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I’d be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn’t been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).

Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I’m hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.

Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don’t appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn’t catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it’s probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn’t all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.

And China is a major long-term concern. That’s hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn’t sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.

All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I’ll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it’s time to catch up on what’s been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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