NSC Chief Tours Asia, Hammers China

Within deep-red fields, vivid-yellow hammers and sickles flutter from flagpoles all around this capital city. The imposing mausoleum of modern Vietnam’s founding radical, Ho Chi Minh, dominates a spacious square, just steps from Communist Party headquarters. Nearby, along a street called Dien Bien Phu, V. I. Lenin Park features a large statue of the Bolshevik revolutionary. From atop his pedestal, the former Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov icily surveils the numerous cars and innumerable scooters that zoom by.


Minutes away, a fashion model in a fuchsia dress paces the sidewalk and strikes a pose before a photographer’s eager lens. Brooks Brothers, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino all vie for high-end consumers’ attention and fistfuls of dong, as Vietnam calls its currency. The Hanoi Stock Exchange hosts equities traders, some of whose gold might glitter enough to merit test drives across the street, at Maserati of Hanoi.


Vietnam: Come for the socialism, stay for the sports cars.


Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien navigates this swirl of contradictions from his fortified limousine, as his official motorcade weaves among meetings at various government ministries here. But the U.S. national-security adviser’s objective on this late-November diplomatic mission is anything but ambiguous. His goal is perfectly clear: Resist China.


From Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines, President Donald J. Trump’s NSC chief recently visited America’s friends, old and new, gauged their temperatures vis-à-vis Beijing, and urged them to repel an increasingly bellicose Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party.


“They are all very concerned about China’s assertiveness,” O’Brien said. “They watch what China is doing with respect to India, which is a major country with nuclear weapons and a large and capable army. They saw the Chinese attack on Indian soldiers on the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. They have watched China coercing Taiwan. They have watched the flame of freedom being extinguished before our very eyes in Hong Kong. They are watching China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, where China is attempting to use its might and force and military and naval service literally to strip away the rights and assets and resources of smaller countries.”


O’Brien rolled out the drum that he pounded throughout his journey: “Weakness is provocative in international affairs, and I think that has been especially true in East Asia,” he observed. “American strength in the region and the same approach from our allies will deter China and actually lead to a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”


O’Brien — a.k.a. APNSA, assistant to the president for national security affairs — began his Asian tour in Japan, where he and his entourage overnighted at Yakota Air Base, about an hour’s drive west of Tokyo. This is an atypical U.S. military facility: Koi swim in its serene ponds as statues of Buddha and a line of C-130 transport aircraft stand stoically at the ready.


In what O’Brien called a “very good meeting,” O’Brien huddled at Yakota with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s national-security chief Shigeru Kitamura, coordinated various policy efforts, and reemphasized America’s and Japan’s roles in keeping Beijing at bay.


He described Washington’s “enhanced security relationship” with Tokyo, reinforced by a mutual willingness over the last four years to confront China, “especially in the East China Sea and the Senkaku islands, where the Japanese are very concerned about Chinese encroachment.”


Then off to Vietnam, via USAF 80002 — Air Force Two when the vice president is aboard. O’Brien and many of his fellow travelers saw this nation for the first time. They were struck by Hanoi’s paradoxical blend of Marxism and markets. But were these high-end items just literal window dressing?


“It is not just seeing the luxury-brand shops in Hanoi,” O’Brien remarked. “It seems like there are shopkeepers and scooter-repair shops all over the city. They have a taste for business and a taste for the free market, and I think you are seeing a Vietnam that is modernizing . . . on a very fast trajectory. I think business and capitalism are in the DNA of the Vietnamese people.”


“Some of the murals of Ho Chi Minh and some of the symbols of the Communist past are more nationalist signs than ideological,” O’Brien reflected. “They do not say where the people are today. We understand that Vietnam is run by a Communist party. That is something we take into account in our relations. We raise human-rights issues with our Vietnamese counterparts at all of our meetings.”


O’Brien cited a key — perhaps the key — distinction between this country and its hulking northern neighbor.


“The Vietnamese Communists are not trying to export their ideology or their control of their country to others the way the Chinese Communists are attempting to control others,” he said. “China effectively censored the free speech of the general manager of the Houston Rockets. You do not have that sort of thing coming from Vietnam the way you do from China.


“They are very different Communist parties,” O’Brien elaborated. “The CCP has global ambitions . . . and the other is concerned with Vietnam and its sovereignty and independence.”


NSC chief Robert C. O’Brien meets with Vietnamese officials as Ho Chi Minh peers over his shoulder. (Deroy Murdock)

O’Brien personally thanked his opposite numbers for releasing American Michael Nguyen, whom Vietnam had held for 27 months, supposedly for plotting to overthrow the government. O’Brien also explained that he and his hosts resolved several immigration concerns, ratified via a signed memorandum of understanding. And finally, he witnessed a startlingly brief signing ceremony in a ground-floor salon of the American delegation’s Metropole Hotel (depuis 1901) that concluded a $1 billion private-sector agreement among America’s General Electric, Vietnam’s EVN GENCO 3, and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.


This consortium will construct a liquefied-natural-gas port and related 1.2- to 1.5-megawatt electricity plant. O’Brien applauded this triple-whammy for America: “The U.S. will sell them clean LNG, wean Vietnam off their reliance on Chinese coal, and create a new market for American LNG producers” — all without U.S. taxpayer dollars. “Good luck with the project,” O’Brien cheerfully congratulated the participants. “Make a lot of power!”



The next morning, O’Brien addressed the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV). Its beautiful, yellow, neo-classical structure could be transported via skyhook, lowered onto a Parisian boulevard, and lift not an eyebrow.


While awaiting O’Brien, DAV’s students sat in complete, respectful silence, unlike young Americans, who excitedly would giggle and titter until called to order. These Vietnamese already were in order.


“Twenty-five years ago, our two great nations set aside a difficult history, and established a friendship,” O’Brien said, recognizing the two and a half decades of diplomatic relations that his sojourn was timed to celebrate. “It is a friendship built atop a foundation of people-to-people ties, including those created by people deeply affected by our past conflict — veterans, bereaved family members, and civilians on both sides.”


Speaking beside his hosts’ flag — a bold yellow star amid a bright-red background, O’Brien added, “Together, we have recovered the remains of those killed and missing in action. We have removed mines, cooperated on nonproliferation, and promoted maritime security.”


The latter was exemplified, O’Brien noted, when “The USS Theodore Roosevelt made a port call in the beautiful city of Danang, marking only the second time an American aircraft carrier has made a port call in Vietnam since the end of the war.”


Beyond the 80,000 Vietnamese students learning in U.S. universities, America has begun to train their future military leaders. “The United States Air Force Academy welcomed its first Vietnamese cadet this year,” O’Brien said. “We hope he will be the first of many Vietnamese cadets and midshipmen to attend our service academies.”


O’Brien took this high-profile opportunity, once again, to put Xi Jinping and his ilk in their place. He denounced “China’s unlawful and coercive behavior in the South China Sea and growing environmental and security threats posed by the PRC in the Mekong region.” The NSC chief added: “This region has no interest in returning to an imperial era in which ‘might makes right.’ . . . The bounteous resources of your nation belong to your children and grandchildren. Their inheritance cannot be taken away simply because a neighbor is bigger and desires what is yours for itself.”


Next stop, Manila.



National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (right) and Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. with precision-guided munitions, among other defense articles, during a turnover ceremony at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, November 23, 2020. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

On behalf of President Trump, O’Brien delivered $18 million of precision-guided armaments to help the Philippine government exterminate ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Mindanao Province. These munitions include 12 ITAS (Improved Target Acquisition System), 24 Mk 82 bombs, and 100 TOW 2-B anti-tank missiles.  The TOW system can fire rockets and, post-launch, steer them into targets. This guidance technology also can direct missiles shot from elsewhere and lead them remotely into objects or evildoers and obliterate them.


“We stand with the Philippines in protecting your sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with your rights and obligations under international law,” O’Brien said at the  Department of Foreign Affairs, a giant, dense, gray specimen of Brutalist architecture. In words unmistakably written for consumption in Beijing, whose fishing and fighting vessels stampede around the Pacific, O’Brien added: “As Secretary of State Pompeo underscored in February, ‘Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.’”



O’Brien concluded his trip at the 152-acre Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, the burial ground for the largest number of fallen World War II GIs. This is the final resting place for 17,184 service members — Americans and Filipinos who were killed in the fight against Imperial Japan. These include 20 sets of brothers and 29 Medal of Honor recipients. Multiple stone walls list the names of 36,286 missing in action.


After silently laying a wreath to honor those who made the supreme sacrifice, O’Brien met with journalists. I asked him if he thought China would limit itself to saber-rattling, or if China’s growing swagger could escalate into a shooting war in Asia.


“Nobody wants a war, and we don’t want a war with China. In fact, we want great relations with the people of China,” O’Brien said. “But China is in a situation right now where they’re being increasingly aggressive.”


As has President Trump, APNSA prescribes a therapy synonymous with its inventor. “Ronald Reagan called this Peace through Strength.”


“We believe that the best way to deter the Chinese, the best way to have good relations with the Chinese is to have a strong America, a strong American military, and have very strong alliances with our treaty allies like the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, and Australia, the countries with whom we have formal alliances, but also with our partners — whether it be Singapore, Vietnam, India or other countries in the region. If we have strong partnerships, we all speak with clarity, and we all spend the requisite amount to defend ourselves, that will deter China.”


As O’Brien summed it up: “Strength tends to cause those who would use coercion to back down. We think that will happen here, too.”


Let’s hope O’Brien is right. From Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines, the soil swells with the bones of too many young men who have died in combat. If America and its regional allies and friends display strength against China, cemeteries such as the one in which he spoke need fill no further.