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Afghanistan following in Vietnam’s footsteps: war, withdrawal, partnership

Huda al-Husseini

Published: Updated:

We all remember the famous movie Good Morning, Vietnam about the US-Vietnam war. Today, many observers are drawing parallels between what happened in Kabul and Saigon. As Kabul was falling into the hands of the Taliban, we all watched as US Vice President Kamala Harris jumped aboard a plane to Vietnam. Some were quick to denounce this visit, not realizing that US-Vietnamese relations have matured enough for a strategic partnership, and that Harris’ visit falls in the context of reinforcing economic and security relations between the two former enemies. Harris’ visit followed another by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, but Harris’ timing is also important for another reason. The fall of Kabul has been widely compared to the fall of Saigon in 1975, which China stood behind. At the time, Chinese media sought to portray the US as untrustworthy, hinting at the same “fate” in Taiwan.

On her first day in Hanoi, Harris met top Vietnamese leaders and attended a US Embassy lease signing ceremony and the inauguration of a regional office of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Hanoi. On this occasion, she announced the donation of 1 million Pfizer jabs, bringing the total number of vaccine shots donated by Washington to Vietnam to 6 million. A few hours before Harris’ arrival, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh had held an impromptu meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to his country, Xiong Bo, who revealed that China would donate 2 million vaccine doses to Vietnam. However, many Vietnamese, especially university students, count on Washington to rescue them from the battle with COVID-19.

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However, the key topic in Harris’ talks with Vietnamese leaders was certainly the strengthening of bilateral relations. Cooperation between the two countries has evolved remarkably in the last few decades, and now the time has come for Vietnam and the US to advance their relations to “a strategic partnership.” Most observers can see that these relations have, indeed, increasingly become strategic, regardless of whether they are labeled as such. In this context, Vietnamese former Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the US Pham Quang Vinh says bilateral relations had matured, and it is only a matter of time now.

The partnership between the US and Vietnam is widely seen as a key factor in the promotion of maritime security against Beijing’s increased presence in the South China Sea (east of Vietnam). With 40 percent of the world’s cargo movement happening in that maritime region, which also enjoys a wealth of natural and fishing resources, the South China Sea has become a key battleground in the race between the US and China given its strategic geopolitical value. In addition to China and Vietnam, the conflict in the South China Sea involves the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China claims the whole region is within its territory based on the so-called nine-dash line, but this claim was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.

To back up its claims, China took action on various levels: spreading propaganda, printing the map of China on Chinese passports as per the nine-dash line, organizing military drills, preventing other states from practicing trade in its exclusive economic zones, and implementing grey zone tactics to intensify its presence in the region. For instance, China insists that conflicts should be resolved bilaterally, not at the international level, but this insistence is no more than a “divide and rule” strategy given the power gap between China and its smaller neighbors on the coast of the South China Sea.

This increased Chinese hostility pushed global powers toward deeper involvement in these conflicts. In July 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “Beijing’s maritime claims across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.” Washington’s protests were followed by similar steps by India and Australia. In September 2020, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom submitted a joint note verbale to the United Nations refuting China’s claims, stressing that “claims with regard to the exercise of ‘historic rights’ over the South China Sea waters do not comply with international law and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) provisions.” Such joint action is unprecedented: never had the three European powers expressed their objection to Chinese claims as directly and vehemently. In January 2021, Tokyo followed suit and submitted a diplomatic note to the UN in which it rejected China’s expansive claims and denounced Chinese efforts to restrict freedoms of navigation and overflight in these waters of strategic importance.

This increased involvement of global powers along with the latest UN Security Council meeting on maritime security indicate the de-facto internationalization of the South China Sea conflict, which can be counted as a win for Vietnam and other coastal states. However, perhaps it is now time for these states, especially Vietnam, to work together with the US and other powers to find alternative solutions. This is probably what Harris meant when she said that the US supports “a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam” and is committed to reinforcing stable and solid ties with the country.

The US war in Vietnam lasted from 1962 till 1975, and it took the two countries more than three decades to discover their mutual need for each other against one common enemy: China. The question here is: what if the same happens between the US and Afghanistan; only sooner, as Americans are amplifying their focus on China from all angles? Besides, what most worries Washington is cooperation between Russia and China, which are both eyeing Afghanistan and its resources.

A few days ago, Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the United States Strategic Command, warned that Sino-Russian partnership is a “rapidly growing threat,” as “both China and Russia have the ability to unilaterally escalate a conflict to any level of violence, in any domain, in any geographic location, and at any time,” and the threat compounds if the two countries work together.

Today, Russia and China are cooperating on many fronts, perhaps most notably on energy issues. However, it seems that the two countries are testing the waters for broader partnerships that range from military and economic to scientific and technological. In this context, Admiral Richard added: “I think we need to be far more humble about our ability to control escalation in a crisis than we currently do… If I can’t get strategic deterrence, and in particular nuclear deterrence to hold, no other plan and no other capability in the Department [of Defense] is going to work as designed.” That’s why, he added, now is “a good time to be doing a National Defense Strategy Review, to be doing a Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review.”

Richard’s remarks come as the US completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was viewed by some as a necessary shift in strategic focus toward China. A new research paper had delved into the increasing cooperation between China and Russia on artificial intelligence, which strategists and analysts view as a critical military enabler in the coming decades.

The research report, published last month by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), said that “US observers are watching this convergence between America’s two key competitors with increasing concern, if not alarm,” adding: “Our findings both confirm assessments of the expanding partnership between China and Russia,” but they also “expose gaps between Chinese and Russian aspirations and the reality on the ground, bringing greater accuracy and nuance to current assessments of Sino-Russian cooperation.”

Concerns over a Chinese-Russia military alliance are unlikely to diminish if the current trajectory is anything to by, although some have questioned how strong such a partnership would prove to be when tested, given the long history of distrust between the two countries.

This is where Afghanistan comes into play if the Taliban manage to save the country from becoming a failed state. Just as Vietnam succeeded in becoming a key player in Washington’s eyes, the Taliban in Afghanistan will see that the US will seek to partner with it and annex it to its anti-China front. This means that Afghanistan can play the same role that Vietnam waited so long to play. The US may pretend to forget the $2 trillion it spent in its 20 years in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan, which needs anything and everything, will not be able to enjoy a free meal on China’s dinner table.

The US is mobilizing. It’s got two enemies: one main enemy circled on the map in red (China), and one natural enemy that the US is always one step ahead of, despite all the propaganda (Russia). Both have their eyes set on Afghanistan.

If the US has warned its greatest ally, Israel, to curb its drift toward China; then the needy Afghanistan calling for good ties with Washington could surely take a shortcut and look to the future saying: “Good morning, America, from Afghanistan.”

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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