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Why the ascendant Chinese military gets little love in Southeast Asia.
VIETNAM: Jaded by invasions and proxy wars, Vietnam’s defense policy is distilled into three ultimatums: No military alliances, no foreign bases and no relying on a third-party country to attack its enemies. In August, a Vietnamese deputy defense attache in Beijing, Chu Ngoc Nho, told the China Daily that “We are not going to be military allies with the U.S. or any other country.”
But Vietnamese anxiety over China’s rise — shared by the U.S. — is encouraging an intimacy that would have been unthinkable decades ago. They’re conducting small naval exercises in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and China are tangled in territorial disputes. U.S. warships have also docked to welcome aboard senior Vietnamese generals. A lifted ban on all but “lethal-end” arms has even helped Vietnam repair old weapons seized after the U.S. retreat in 1975.
But perhaps the strongest affront to China is America’s proposal to share nuclear technology with Vietnam, ostensibly to power its booming industries. U.S. officials are openly considering an agreement that would allow Vietnam to enrich its own uranium, a stepping stone towards assembling nuclear weapons.
Vietnam’s potential to produce a nuclear bomb — or even a nuclear-powered submarine — has been overstated, Storey said. “In fact, it’s almost unthinkable,” he said. The Vietnamese will also be mindful not to grow too close to its former enemy. “They’ve got to play a very careful game with China,” Storey said. “They can’t seem to be antagonizing them, because the Chinese can make life very difficult for them.”
INDONESIA: According to the U.S. Defense Department, up to 80 percent of China’s fuel imports pass through the so-called naval “choke points” around Indonesia. But despite China’s huge need for stability along this island chain, they have largely failed to influence the Indonesian forces tasked with securing it.
More than most Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia has sought China’s military help, namely in acquiring the technology to mass produce its own weapons and equipment.
But Chinese reluctance to share its secrets, Storey said, has frayed the relationship.
Previously, while under U.S. arms embargoes for human rights abuses, Indonesia was heavily courted by China’s defense industry. But after buying $11 million worth of anti-ship missiles in 2005, the Indonesians have shown little interest in buying more Chinese advanced weaponry, known to be less reliable than Russian, European and U.S. weapons.
“The Chinese attempted to drive a wedge between Indonesia and the U.S.,” Storey said. “But this relationship was repaired fairly quickly.”
Since 2006, the U.S. has poured $47 million into Indonesia’s anti-piracy and other military programs, including a network of radars through its precarious shipping lanes. Amidst criticism this year, the U.S. lifted a ban on aiding Kopassus, Indonesia’s elite commando unit accused of torture and other human rights abuses.
“Human rights are important domestically [in the U.S.], but considering China, they have to beef up their Southeast Asia presence,” Storey said. “With the Indonesian military reforming itself, and the fact that they’re a democracy, the U.S. has to hope these abuses won’t happen again.”