Asia: Soft-power and military intimidation

In mid-March, I was walking through a large, modern drugstore and supermarket in the basement of a large new Korean-built hotel in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. I saw shelf after shelf of grocery and pharmaceutical products from all over the world, but chief among them were well known product labels from the United States. Vietnamese shoppers were lined up at the cash registers to pay for Kleenex, canned soups, aspirin, and other well-known American products.

At that moment, I imagined the sound of American B-52 bombers over Hanoi, as they were in December 1972, with the wail of air raid sirens and the hammer of anti-aircraft guns – what a difference 45 years of geopolitical shift makes. The North Vietnamese (as they were then) were fighting to defend their country from what they viewed as U.S. interference in a Vietnamese civil war.

Today, it appears that American soaps have replaced American bombs as a medium of communication between the two countries. And Vietnam looks to a faltering American leadership to help it stand independently against a renascent and rearming China.

Just days earlier, I had been in Danang, where the US Nimitz class USS Carl Vinson had just completed good will port visit. The last time an American carrier had been so close to Vietnam, USN fighter bombers were using those carriers to bomb North Vietnam. Now, today’s generation of US carriers cruise near the Vietnamese coast, and in other locations across the South China Sea, to make the point to China that the waters of that highly contested sea are still – by legal definition of an international tribunal in 2016 – international waters.

Street scene in Vietnam

The Vietnamese struggled for their independence from China for a thousand years before they were forcefully colonized by the French in the mid-nineteenth century. They see China today as the rising hegemon that it is seeking to be the “great” power in southeast Asia, and look to the U.S. and others to help them in their ongoing struggle for independence from that power.

Indeed, they are receiving much support from the U.S. and its allies such as Australia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan. Canada too has designated Vietnam as a special target of Canadian aid, but driving around Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, there is little outward sign of Canadian aid as there are of several other countries who have built bridges and other infrastructure for the Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese have even changed their definition of what we in the west refer to as the Vietnam war. On a visit to the dark and medieval-like French colonial jail once referred to as the Hanoi Hilton (where downed U.S. pilots were kept prisoner during the war), visitors are told that the war was a struggle against the American government – not its people.

As if to underscore Vietnamese concerns, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy held a major demonstration of their increasing sea power earlier this month. Led by the aircraft carrier Liaoning, the event involved some 48 warships, 76 aircraft, and 10,000 personnel. China took the occasion to admit that they have militarized their artificial island in the Spratly chain and are now deploying jamming equipment at Mischief Reef.

China’s drive for naval supremacy in the region has been relentless, and there are many signs that they are catching up with and even surpassing the United States in some areas of military technology. More ominous is the Chinese intention to build at least three more carriers in the years ahead (the Liaoning was purchased from Ukraine and re-built). When that project is complete in the next decade, China will be able to challenge American sea power in the region because the U.S. can only deploy one or two other carrier groups to that area of the world at the same time.


It is highly unlikely that the U.S. and China would clash in a naval war any time soon. Aircraft carriers are power projectors, but they can only live in a permissive environment. Both American and Chinese carriers would have life-spans of mere hours if a real war broke out between the two nations, and they both know it. So, Are Vietnamese concerns valid? These naval craft are meant as tokens on a Chinese chess board, to intimidate, to threaten, to reward, and to remind the maritime nations of the world of who holds sway in a particular area of the world’s oceans, seas and chokepoints.

But Vietnam is correct that China seeks complete domination of the seas of southeast Asia and the nations that border those seas if not also the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. That campaign is being fought not only with ships and aircraft, but also with the so-called soft power of investment, international aid, cultural domination and education, and technological advancement.

The Asian shores of the Pacific are far away from Canada, but Canadians need to be aware that taking isolationist positions about the events occurring there will prove dangerous to our own interests in the long run. After some fits and starts, we have finally joined the Trans Pacific Partnership 2.0 – it ought to be a sign that Ottawa is more than aware that Canada cannot remain aloof from the gathering clouds of diplomatic and trade confrontation in the far Pacific. 

David Bercuson is a Research Director at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.