The administration of United States President Donald Trump has reduced the complexities of Asia to a simple good and bad, with China demonised as the latter. But increasingly fewer of the region’s governments share the view, their Beijing-leaning foreign policies and efforts to settle differences proving where allegiances most lie. In Southeast Asia, that has left Washington searching for reliable strategic partners and its latest target is Vietnam. The strategy is flawed, creating unnecessary tensions by promoting threats that do not exist.

ietnam was identified by the US as a “cooperative maritime partner” in its latest national security strategy. The country has been the most vocal of Southeast Asian nations with territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, making it a perfect ally for Washington in its efforts to counter China’s rise.

Washington’s deployment last week to the Vietnamese port of Da Nang of an American aircraft carrier group, the first since the end of the Vietnam war four decades ago, should therefore not be surprising. Such a show of strength was perceived by the leaders of both sides as being to their advantage, which is why the suggested five-day visit was given the green light by Hanoi.

The same thinking is behind the regular voyages of US naval vessels in the name of “freedom of navigation” near islands China has created in the South China Sea. It is encouraging allies, Britain, Australia and France among them, to follow suit with joint patrols. Washington’s claims that China is a threat hinge on a rising defence budget, the construction of military outposts and increased activity by the People’s Liberation Army at sea and in the air. But the fearmongering ignores the facts; China has every right to protect its sovereignty and interests and not once has it obstructed freedom of navigation.

Beijing has instead done its utmost to ease concerns, best illustrated by its working with the Association of South East Asian nations to put in place a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Four members of the grouping have territorial disputes with Beijing, but of them, only Vietnam has maintained a bellicose posture. The high-profile visit by the carrier, the Carl Vinson, does not automatically mean creation of a military alliance with the US; the communist nation prefers an independent approach to defence, which is why it has also reached out to Japan, India and Russia.

American officials are eager to counter China’s growing might to preserve their nation’s global eminence. But they would do better to accept a big power relationship with Beijing and the best place to start is by ending provocations that are behind tensions.

The South China Morning Post - March 12, 2018