Is Vietnam the Prussia of the 21st Century?

“The Vietnam Solution
Robert D. Kaplan
The Atlantic
June 2012

Blick auf Hanoi

Blick auf Hanoi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan has spent the last two decades on the ground of the world’s trouble spots, hunting for the untold stories of the conflicts that happen on the edges of globalization and what the US defense establishment calls “The Long War.” His worldview is divorced from both the Pentagon and the Ivory Tower, cleaving more closely to a ground-level perspective that we hear and read all too little.

Kaplan began his post-9/11 writings focused on failed states and non-state actors and how those two created not just an opening but a need for the U.S. to step in and change things. With his recent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Kaplan began to shift his attention to the emerging great power politics in Asia, and in the June edition of The Atlantic, Kaplan turns full-face toward China.

Coming just as China is starting to flex some muscle in the South China Sea off of Vietnam’s shores, Kaplan’s article offers a view of the Middle Kingdom from Hanoi. It is not a nice view, given China’s growing diplomatic aggression, but it is for Vietnam not a new one: the Vietnamese, Kaplan points out, have been maneuvering against the Dragon to maintain their independence for a millennium.

They have done this because they have become adept at playing regional power politics to keep the Chinese from squashing their country out of existence. Kaplan dubs Vietnam “The Prussia of Asia,” and as I am halfway through Christopher Clark’s superb Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, the point rings true. Vietnam has learned to play a Clausewitzian game as well as anyone in the region.

The article is excellent, and my only quibble is that Kaplan did not ask the hardest question: whether Vietnam’s domestic politics and the direction its economy is taking will allow it to resist being drawn into China’s orbit. This is a non-trivial question for those of us watching the South China Sea. Vietnam remains the wild-card for both sides. But, reading this article, it is clear that this is exactly how Hanoi would like to keep things.

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