AT THE time, the events in Indochina of April and May 1975 seemed to mark in the starkest way the end of a period of unchallenged American hegemony in Asia and the Pacific</strong>. Cambodia fell to the brutal Khmers Rouges, South Vietnam was absorbed by the North and communists took power in Laos. Famous pictures of an evacuation by helicopter from the American embassy roof in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) captured the apocalyptic mood: the humbling of the superpower, in bedraggled retreat from Asia. Yet, 40 years later, as Vietnam marks the anniversary of unification, America’s defeat in Vietnam looks in retrospect no more than a blip in a prolonged Pax Americana. Only now is the durability of the American-led regional order being seriously questioned.</strong>
Jonathan Schell, an American journalist who covered the Vietnam war, wrote that what had led America to enter and expand it was not over-optimism about its chances of victory, but “overly pessimistic assessments of the consequences of losing”. These entailed not just the tumbling of other Asian “dominoes” to the communist menace, but a catastrophic loss of American prestige and credibility. Indeed, for a while after the war America did seem in global retreat. Jimmy Carter, elected president the following year, oversaw what Lee Kuan Yew</strong>, Singapore’s late patriarch, called in his memoirs “four years of pious musings about America’s malaise</strong>”, during which Iran’s revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further dented America’s standing.
It soon turned out, however, that Mr Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford, had been right in a speech he made on April 23rd 1975 in which he said that events in Indochina “tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.” Communism did not advance beyond Indochina to elsewhere in Asia. And by then, partly in response to the quagmire in Vietnam, America had already tilted towards China with Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972. This softened the strategic impact of the humiliations three years later.
A de facto alliance with China against the Soviet Union left America’s supremacy in Asia uncontested.</strong> After the war, the region boomed. American intervention in Vietnam no longer looked such an unmitigated disaster. Lee Kuan Yew portrayed it almost as a triumph: without it, South-East Asia would probably have fallen to the communists. America bought the region time and, by 1975, its countries were “in better shape” to stand up to them. The prosperous emerging-market economies they have become “were nurtured during the Vietnam war years”.
The greatest beneficiary of the new global alignment was China itself, which embarked in 1979 on its great economic transformation, against the backdrop of a stable region secured by America’s unchallenged primacy. China has done so well out of this arrangement that many Americans struggle to understand that it might want to challenge and to change it</strong>. But growing numbers of analysts now believe that it does: that its goal is to supplant America as the Asia-Pacific’s—and eventually the world’s—leading power. Hugh White, an Australian writer on strategic affairs, argues that China is achieving by totally different means under its current leader, Xi Jinping, what it failed to attain under Mao Zedong: wealth, power and a dominant role in its own region.</strong>
Most American strategic thinkers have tended until recently to argue that China can be accommodated</strong> in the existing world order; and that even if it harbours greater ambitions, it is so far behind America in economic and military terms that it will set them aside for the foreseeable future. A more alarmist school of thought is gaining strength, however.</strong> A new report for the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, by two analysts who have worked in government, Ashley Tellis and Robert Blackwill, calls for a new “grand strategy” for dealing with China, including strengthening America’s army and stepping up military co-operation with its allies. It argues that “the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to US primacy in Asia—and could eventually result in a consequential challenge to American power globally.” In a similar vein, Michael Pillsbury, another former American government official, has published a book with a self-explanatory title: “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower”.
The American administration itself seems to be adopting a harder line towards China. It has always denied that its “pivot” or “rebalancing” towards Asia was aimed at China’s containment. But it was certainly intended to reassure its friends and allies in the region that it was not simply going to stage a strategic withdrawal to make way for a rising China. And it is becoming more open in its rivalry. Recently it tried in vain to persuade its allies to shun a Chinese-led development bank. To garner support for its ambitious trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it has stressed how the deal is essential if America is to prevent China from writing the rules for the region.
China, for its part, constantly suspects America of trying to contain it; and it argues that the alliances that tie America to Asia, notably its defence treaty with Japan, are cold-war relics that should be dismantled. None of the allies wants that; and none wants to be forced to choose between its security ties with America and its links with China.</strong> But, if the pessimists are right, they may one day find they have to.</strong> As Mr White sees it, America’s experience in the Vietnam war is an “Aesop’s fable of the perils of statecraft”. America, having fought in Vietnam to stop China building a sphere of influence that excluded it, was driven by the war into opening to China and has since facilitated China’s rise—and that rise has been so successful that China now threatens to build a sphere of influence that excludes America.</strong>