The Foreign Service Journal, May 2018

52 MAY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL our troops home, only to find it impossible to escape the politi- cal and military quagmire. The Soviet Union and China stood behind the communist forces in Indochina, fueling fear that if their surrogates won power in those desperately poor countries, this would pose a threat to America. In the end, the communist forces won. They were willing to suffer deeper and longer than we were. By 1975, our embassies were evacuated in Saigon, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. So we sat back and waited for the dominos to fall. But by 1988, when the unified Vietnamese government finally allowed Western reporters in, it appeared that the communists had won the war but lost the peace. While people in Hanoi and Phnom Penh suffered from hunger and lack of medicine, electric- ity and soap, the more capitalist economies from Bangkok to Sin- gapore were booming. While in Hanoi for the 1988 Tet New Year holiday, I saw people thin as rails sitting in cold damp houses and able to offer a visitor only unsweetened tea and candied vegetables. In a sharp contrast, Bangkok offered endless curbside restaurants providing prawns, fish, duck, rice and noodles. So that year, without softening its absolute control over politi- cal power one bit, the communist regime in Hanoi opened its borders to foreign investment and trade. It allowed farmers to sell their rice on the open market instead of to the government at discounted prices. In one year Vietnam shot up to be the world’s second-largest rice exporter. The Reverse Domino Theory In the late 1980s, instead of the victorious North Vietnam- ese military forcing Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines to become communist, the bustling Southeast Asian nations seduced the austere reds with an endless supply of consumer goods smuggled into Saigon. While government shops were mostly empty, the black markets sold Singaporean beer, Thai toothpaste, Malaysian pajamas, medicine, motorcycles, sugar, rice and televisions. This seduced the communist nations: they created crony capitalism with a socialist tinge. Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told me in a recent interview that although the United States spilled its blood and treasure in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and then re- engaged in the region under President Barack Obama, there is no longer a tight American connection to Indochina. Vietnam, which Hiebert recently visited, is booming, but it seeks economic advantage out of closer ties to Washington. The United States recently sent an aircraft carrier on a friendly visit to Vietnam, a far cry from the days when U.S. warships attacked North Vietnam. Meanwhile China is building the Belt and Road Initiative to spread trade and influence—and it is not talking about human rights. Although the communists loosened central control over the economy, the regimes of Indochina remained ready to imprison, silence and punish those who would seek to seriously challenge authority. So by 1990, when communism had collapsed globally as an economic system fromMoscow to Beijing, Prague, East Berlin and Indochina, Vietnam and its allies Cambodia and Laos kept the authoritarianism at the center of their political systems alive. And that is now spreading to other countries in the region. China has advanced this process, its giant industrializing shadow falling across countries where an ethnic Chinese trading subculture has long been both admired and resented. In its early years of authoritarian capitalism, China showcased a non-West- Today’s dominoes are not allies of Beijing or Moscow; nor do they practice central state economic planning. BENBARBER Women on bicycle in poor and cold Hanoi in 1988, when the regime first allowed foreign reporters in.