Southeast Asia's New Dominoes

America's pivot to Asia is raising eyebrows about a new domino theory that counters China's rise. (Great Beyond/Flickr)

There will likely be no discussion of the 1947 Marshall Plan at the White House tomorrow during talks between President Barack Obama and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang, but the U.S. strategy to support Europe and prevent the spread of communism would be a relevant talking point.

While the domino theory once feared the spread of communist ideology throughout Southeast Asia, the ongoing U.S. pivot toward Asia seems to be taking a wary view toward China and its economic and military influence in the region. The second visit by a Vietnamese head of state since 1995 is yet another signpost in what we might call “containment light,” and could be the start of a long-term partnership as both countries look to have counterweights to China’s rise.

The visit comes at a time when U.S. and regional impatience with China is growing. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Singapore this week to discuss the mounting tensions in the South China Sea region, after first visiting India, another crucial Asian partner.

The U.S. has also actively been engaging with countries like former enemy Myanmar, once part of an elite group of authoritarian regimes — so-called “outposts of tyranny.” And while Vietnam was never relegated to that status, it has taken nearly 40 years from the end of the Vietnam War for the two countries to establish the rapport they currently enjoy.

At the White House, presidents Sang and Obama are expected to discuss trade, security, and education, among other issues, all with a view to bolstering America’s growing engagement with its former adversary.

While the U.S. would still prefer Vietnam to be more democratic, and to see a more concerted effort to protect and expand democratic freedoms for its population, in this country of 90 million people opportunities for military cooperation (the U.S. Navy would welcome the opportunity to dock in Vietnamese ports) and American brands rule the day as compared to polarized political ideologies of the past.

From Vietnam’s viewpoint, the U.S. — still for the moment economically and militarily number one — is the only country capable of countering China’s growing sway in the world.

In recent history, Vietnam’s relationship with China has been particularly challenged, when it teamed up with Malaysia to delineate boundaries in the South China Sea by way of a formal submission to the U.N. This occurred despite China’s claims to the entire sea area, one of the central points of contention existing between ASEAN and China.

Yet well before the recent spats, the two countries have on numerous occasions gone to war and in spite of both being communist, they do not share a good deal of trust. Vietnam is increasingly warming to the thought of U.S. defense of its interests.

Critical to the meetings will be a redefinition of what “the rules of the road” mean exactly for a rising star like Vietnam, and a global leader like America. Should the U.S. be a more responsible multilateral actor, supporting regionally important agreements like the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, which it has not yet ratified? Or should Vietnam’s political system allow for greater dissent, recognizing that many Asian nations’ rapid rise to success has been on the backs of less democratic systems?

Both sides will be coming to the meeting with different ideas and vantage points, but the result should not just be seen as the oft talked about U.S. rebalance or "pivot," but rather a global shift as well.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Andrew Billo
Andrew Billo is Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society's New York Public Programs office. He previously worked for six years on migration issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.