As we know, the ending of WW II terminated Germany’s and Japan’s Fascism and their imperialistic ambitions. Clearly both Germany and Japan practiced a hegemony strategy with the intent to conquer half of the world. The post-war world, despite of the effort of establishing the United Nation, evolved unfortunately into two camps centered on two ideologies, capitalism versus communism, led by the U.S. and the Soviet Union respectively. The two nations each was vying for global leadership. The Soviet Union, was essentially practicing "hegemony" till her collapse , caused mainly by her crushing economy not military weakness. Her collapse in 1990 is a testimony to the fact that the hegemony practice is unsustainable. Hegemony requires a forever sustained strong economy, comparable to or greater than the economy of the rest of the world, to succeed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia seems to be adopting a quasi-hegemony strategy attempting to use her natural resources as her soft power. On the other hand, the U.S., the organizer of NATO, had been essentially practicing ‘quasi-hegemony’ using her soft power and military might to offer economic as well as military aid to other nations to gain global influence. The U.S. did attain her superpower and world leader status; however, the world is still far from being in order. The Middle East turmoil, the reaction to the expansion of NATO and especially the consequence of Pivot to Asia all seem to challenge the U.S. and her foreign policies. Should the U.S. tune her foreign policy in the hegemony-harmony spectrum?
Before we answer the above question in view of the current events such as the rising tension in the South China Sea, let us use the Vietnam War and Sino-Vietnam-U.S. relations to clarify the notion of harmony to hegemony as a spectrum of foreign policies.
During and Post WW II, France fought the first Indochina war resisting the revolutionary force Viet Minh which was supported by China (both Kuomintang (KMT) and later Chinese Communist Party (CCP)) and the Soviet Union. There were significant number of Chinese (soldiers and merchants retreated from China as Japan was advancing into China) - Vietnamese (local citizens) marriages that had alarmed the French. Although the international-marriages were not consummated under official policy but in reality it resembled the ancient Chinese “harmony” approach towards neighboring states. The French were eventually defeated in 1954. Then the U.S. stepped in to counter the spread of communism in Indochina by aiding the South Vietnam government against the communist Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The US involvement eventually turned into the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The United States initially provided aids and assistance to South Vietnam (which was consistent with a quasi-harmony foreign policy) to resist North Vietnam supported by the Soviet and China. The U.S. did not learn from the experience of the Korean War (another quasi-hegemony policy) and decided to engage in the Vietnam War with US military forces (a switch from a quasi-harmony to a quasi-hegemony policy). The 20 year Vietnam War was very bitter and controversial and the U.S. eventually withdrew from the war without any gain. North Vietnam finally united with the South.
In 1949, the CCP successfully took control of Mainland China from the KMT and was a member of the Soviet block with a treaty of alliances signed by Stalin and Mao. Initially, China was an ally of the communist Viet Cong and NVA supporting their revolution to gain independence. As time went on, the CCP experienced the failures of communism herself eventually splitting from the Soviet block in 1960s (reaction to the Soviet’s hegemony behavior). Then Vietnam switched her reliance on China to the Soviet during the US-Vietnam war (The Soviet was conducting a quasi-hegemony policy regarding Vietnam). As the war was dragging on without a clear end, the U.S. gradually understood the pivoting role China could play in her quest fighting the Soviet Union. She then adopted a harmony approach toward China (from economic sanction to rapprochement). Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 till formal recognition of China in 1979 and letting China into the West Economy with the purpose of aligning with China against the Soviet are the crux of the ‘Harmony’ policy. China did play a role in helping ending the US-Vietnam war. Eventually, the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam and North Vietnam successfully united with the South. This result basically concluded that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet quasi-hegemony approach in Indochina was successful.
The Sino-Vietnam relation goes back several hundred years BC. Chinese domination over Indochina was through ‘harmony’ approach which had been adopted by almost all Chinese dynasties towards her small neighbors. In the early history, the states in Indochina essentially maintained a suzerainty relation with China, that is, they make tributes (often token since they receive back more gifts from Chinese emperors) to China to get China’s recognition and protection. However, the Chinese influence in Indochina ended in 1884 when she lost a war to France and was forced to sign a treaty ceding the domination of Vietnam and other Indochinese nations \ to France. Although during and post-WW II, China did lend support (a quasi-harmony approach) to Vietnam’s revolution to gain independence from France, her later split from Soviet Union induced the Soviet to replace China by engaging a quasi-hegemony policy towards the communist North Vietnam, but in the end, without being able to control Vietnam.
Vietnam historically had territory dispute with neighboring states including China over their borders and over the islands in the South China Sea. In 1958, North Vietnam accepted China’s claim over the Paracel Islands. In 1974, a battle over the Paracels with South Vietnam ended with China’s total control of the Paracels, but today Vietnam still has disputes with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Even a small country like Vietnam may adopt a hegemony policy towards neighbors as seen from the Cambodia war and invasion into Laos by the Vietnamese. Perhaps inflamed by their success in winning two major wars against France and the U.S. and emboldened by witnessing the devastating turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in China, Vietnam began instigating border incidences and capturing border territory. However, in February 1979, China, under the leadership of Deng Xiao-ping, launched an offensive in response to Vietnam's 1978 invasion and occupation of Cambodia (which ended the rule of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge). The ‘29 day war’ was China’s carefully orchestrated punitive mission against Vietnam’s hegemony act towards Cambodia, Laos and China. China won the battles, recovered some strategic border areas occupied by the Vietnamese and smartly withdrew and ended the war before the weather became a disadvantage to the Chinese army. The war quenched the ambition of Vietnam though it failed to dispel the Vietnamese from occupying Cambodia. The border conflicts persisted till 1990 when the Soviet Union was collapsing; Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia and then the Sino-Vietnam relation gradually returned to normal.
The current US pivot to Asia Pacific policy (a quasi hegemony policy) stirred up a new round of tension in South China Sea not only between Vietnam and China but also among all Asian nations. In the previous column, we warned that the U.S. seems to be shifting her AP policy from quasi-hegemony to hegemony by revising military treaty with Japan and encouraging arms race in Asia against China. We hope the above case analysis of the Vietnam War and the related consequences will provide food for thought – shifting from hegemony to harmony has better chance to succeed than the other direction.