America's Last 'Pivot' to Asia: The Vietnam War and the China Factor

A crisis in U.S.-China relations from half a century ago offers perspective on recent superpower tensions in Southeast Asia ahead of the upcoming Obama-Xi Summit.

Fifty years ago this year, the United States embarked on another “pivot to Asia,” albeit one that many Americans may wish to forget. A war that took the lives of nearly 60,000 young Americans, maimed and wounded more than 300,000, and also resulted in the deaths of perhaps 2-3 million Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict, should not be relegated to the annals of another “forgotten war.” 1965 was the year when the U.S. commitment of forces to the Vietnam War went from 23,000 advisors to 184,000 combat troops and American casualties also multiplied by a factor of 20.

In fact, America’s “longest war” (before the current Afghan imbroglio at least) remains quite relevant to the current U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The epic failure in US defense policy that was the Vietnam War offers some stern lessons in military hubris, the perils of threat inflation, not to mention the dangers of being entangled in local identity politics (“nationalisms”) on the other side of the planet. But it also has important insight for one of our nation’s foremost contemporary national security quandaries: What to do about China?

The single article commemorating the “beginning” of the Vietnam War on this forum curiously does not even mention China a single time. However, when Xi Jinping and Barack Obama meet for another summit later this month they may want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that almost exactly fifty years prior on September 20, 1965, a Chinese Mig “splashed” an American F-104 fighter over Hainan Island near to the South China Sea. Five decades on from that dangerous incident, which like many other similar recent aerial encounters could have sparked a US-China war, tensions regrettably still simmer in the same area.

The China aspect of the Vietnam War was not a minor sideshow, but actually formed the main underlying rationale for the war. The ominous “ChiCom” threat seemed poised to sweep across the whole of Southeast Asia. It is true that Mao Zedong had criticized Nikita Khrushchev for backing down in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Chinese leader was viewed in Washington as the “black hand” that would push over all the dominoes in this unstable region after the retreat of the imperial powers. China’s very first test of a nuclear weapon in October 1964 added additional strain to the unfolding crisis. While the story of China’s role in the Vietnam War has been explored capably in English by the scholar Qiang Zhai, it is interesting that the Sino-American “crisis” of 1964-65 remains an apparently important research topic among Chinese strategists, as suggested by the article on “The Strategic Competition between China and America after the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Incident’” that was just published in the June 2015 edition of the PRC journal 中共党史研究 [Chinese Communist Party History Research].  The somewhat disturbing thesis of that essay is that “中国在这场外交博弈中胜出” [China prevailed in this foreign policy contest] after China transitioned from a position of “缓和” [relaxing tensions] to one that became “强硬” [strong and unyielding]. This edition of Dragon Eye will summarize the above Chinese paper to gain insight into current Chinese thinking about U.S.-China crisis management, as well as to underline that U.S.-China tensions in Southeast Asia are hardly a new phenomenon.