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Vietnam and the art of not choosing

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Lessons from the nation most poised between the US and China

The trick, when crossing the road in Hanoi, is to avoid sudden movements or pauses. At the same time, total obliviousness to the traffic isn’t advisable either. So, who takes precedence? The pedestrian, of course, who must be worked around. But also the motorist, at least those on two wheels, whose imperial status doesn’t stop at the kerb. It is an “and” thing, not an “or” thing. 

But then what isn’t here? This is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and a prolific signer of free-trade deals. (A serene Ho Chi Minh gazes at me from the banknotes with which I settle a bar bill. Up the street is a Bang & Olufsen.) This knack of living in two mental worlds at the same time goes all the way to the top. 

If south-east Asia is the hinge in the US-China tussle, Vietnam has a fair claim as the hinge of the hinge. In 2023, the Lowy Institute in Sydney assessed that no state in the region was more equidistant between the two powers — diplomatically, culturally, militarily, commercially — except Singapore, which has 5mn people to Vietnam’s almost 100mn, and the Philippines, which has since tilted west under Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Thailand was level with Vietnam as a fence-sitter. The rest of the region? Ever more China-permeated. 

If the last century belonged to absolute ideas — Eric Hobsbawm called it the “age of extremes” — this one is testing almost the opposite intellectual faculty: that of doubt and modulation rather than commitment. With the US far down from its peak share of world output, and with China accounting for less than that, so much of the planet could be viably “non-aligned” as to make the term itself redundant. 

But not without effort. A difficult state of mind to achieve is the one John Keats described as “negative capability”. This is a tolerance and even active preference for nuance. (F Scott Fitzgerald called it the holding of “two opposing ideas” at once, although the full quote has a clunkiness so unlike him.) It is said to be a mark of intelligence. It isn’t. Lots of first-class minds are dogmatic. But it is a test of fortitude: of one’s willingness to navigate life without the reassuring map of doctrine. 

The good and the ambiguous tend to coincide. Unplanned cities are more beguiling, at least to me, than grid-based or architecturally coherent ones. In art, virtually the definition of badness, of hackery, is work whose meaning is too clear. The best romances can be hard to place on the spectrum from overnight tryst to outright coupledom: long enough for the two people to bond, but not long enough for mutual boredom to set in. Yet, in each of these cases, doubt can be intolerable, too. (Think of the popular dislike of non-figurative art, or the eternal refrain of “Where is this going?”.) There is a demand for sure things amid the flux of human experience. 

Now consider how much stronger that demand is when the stakes are geopolitical. Consider how much harder it is to remain ambiguous. The more time passes since Brexit, the more wowed I am by the four decades before it. What an act of negative capability it was, on a national scale, to be in but not quite of the EU, to co-author the single market but abstain from the euro, to observe free movement but not Schengen. In the end, the strain of inhabiting those half-worlds was too much, and Britain preferred something worse but clearer. That choice is easier to understand now. But it leaves me all the more curious about countries that do maintain a poise, especially if the forces bidding for their commitment are more intimidating than Brussels.

Sometimes audible through the Hanoi traffic is that signifier of a non-aligned nation in 2024: ambient Russian voices. I fly out wondering if it can last, this masterclass in not choosing, between market and state, between the west and its rivals, right up to the ancient question, hot again in the strategy world, of whether Vietnam should have a continental or maritime orientation. Its experience of territorial invasion suggests the first. Some 2,000 miles of coastline suggests the second. Cash spent on a tank is cash not spent on a ship. Even in south-east Asia, there’s a limit to how much one can “and” the world away.

By Janan Ganesh – The Financial Times – February 23, 2024

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