SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON - In the basement office of his Southeast Asian Community Center in a gritty neighborhood of downtown San Francisco, Philip Nguyen runs down a list of issues he says matter to Vietnamese Americans like himself.
Lack of good jobs. Rising health care costs. Skyrocketing housing prices. In other words, things any American would care about come election time.
But at the mention of China, Nguyen’s eyes light up.
“This is my favorite subject,” said the 70-year-old, who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Like many Vietnamese Americans, Nguyen has little love for his former country’s communist government.
Nguyen still feels great pride for his old country, and that feeling surfaces when he talks about China’s aggression in the South China Sea, where Beijing has territorial disputes with Vietnam and several other Southeast Asian countries.
“Do we as Vietnamese Americans have a concern about the South China Sea dispute? We do,” Nguyen said firmly. “I can tell you almost 100 percent of the people here, we are concerned. This is a No. 1 topic right now in our community.”
The South China Sea has emerged as a major election issue, not only for many of the 1.6 million Vietnamese Americans, but also for the 2.6 million Americans from the Philippines, which is also in a dispute with China.
Leading presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, each vow to be tough on China.
As secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, Clinton took a vocal stance against China’s actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea. She was one of the main architects of the White House’s policy of rebalance to Asia, which is largely seen as a way to contain China.
“Clinton undoubtedly has a hawkish reputation in Asia, especially China,” said Steven Lewis, an Asia expert at Rice University. “I think we can expect more of the same from her in the future.”
Trump’s record on Asia is more complicated. While he has made criticism of China a centerpiece of his campaign, he has mostly focused on trade. He has also threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Asia, raising questions of whether he would cede regional influence to Beijing.
Despite the tough talk from U.S. politicians, China has moved to assert control over the disputed maritime area, transforming reefs and rocky outcroppings into artificial islands that can support military installations and airstrips.
Vietnamese Americans have been especially vocal on the South China Sea, at times protesting Beijing’s actions in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington or other consulates.
California has the biggest population of Vietnamese Americans. Many live in the Bay Area, including San Francisco, where they are concentrated in the rundown but vibrant neighborhood known as the Tenderloin District.
A two-block stretch of the hilly district was officially designated Little Saigon in 2004 and is complete with Vietnamese-owned restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores. A pair of traditional Vietnamese lion statues stand guard at the entrance.
It is one of the few areas in the city where it’s possible to rent an affordable apartment, said Nguyen, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Center, which, among other services, offers citizenship classes and provides assistance for low-income immigrants.
“We are Americans now, but many people still have a lingering eye” toward Vietnam, he said, explaining his community’s concern about China. “We understand the reason China has to expand. But if they expand at our expense, then we have to worry about it.”
Presidential campaigns typically do not make much of an attempt to reach out to immigrant populations in states such as California, which has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every general election since 1992.
But the Southeast Asian vote could play a pivotal role elsewhere, including Florida, Nevada and Virginia, all states that could vote either Democratic or Republican on November 8.
Sipping iced coffee at an outdoor patio of a Vietnamese-owned cafe in Falls Church, Virginia, Lam Nguyen is blunt about his feelings on the South China Sea dispute.
“I don’t like China,” said Nguyen, who works as a driver. “I would like the U.S. military to stop China in the South China Sea.”
Sitting nearby is Keith Lee, a local union organizer. He, too, says he doesn’t like that China is aggressive toward Vietnam, but is skeptical that anyone can do anything to stop it.
“The big guy always tries to claim the chunk of the pie,” Lee said. “This is the real world.”
About 150,000 Vietnamese and Filipino Americans live in Virginia. While that’s a small percentage of the 8.3 million people who call the state home, in some years that would be more than enough to swing an election.
Just ask Senator Mark Warner, a U.S. senator from Virginia, who won his seat in 2014 by 17,000 votes. Warner, a Democrat, reached out to Asian Americans and won their votes by a 2-to-1 ratio, giving him enough Asian votes alone to put him over the top.
A decade earlier, another Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, won his seat by just 9,000 votes, also in part by reaching out to Asian Americans.
“I think Trump will be tougher on China, but I don’t know, really,” said Binh Tran, who owns and manages a bakery in Falls Church’s Eden Center, a strip mall filled with Vietnamese-owned shops.
As a whole, Asian Americans are becoming more liberal and largely do not like Trump, according to a poll conducted in May by a group of Asian American advocacy groups.
But Asian Americans do not vote uniformly. For example, Vietnamese Americans traditionally have leaned Republican, in part because they were seen as being tougher against communists.
Also, Trump’s support among Filipino Americans could suffer from his putting the Philippines on his list of terrorist countries from which he would bar immigration.
That situation is further complicated by recently elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism of Manila’s military ties with the U.S. Duterte is also seen as moving the country closer to China.
Both Clinton and Trump have made efforts to reach out to Asian Americans.
In January, Clinton’s campaign rolled out the Asian American and Pacific Islander Voters for Hillary group. Earlier this week, Trump announced the formation of an Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee “to support and strengthen ties” with the community.
But it’s not clear whether the candidates will use the South China Sea issue to try to win votes. Lewis, the Rice University professor, said it could be a risky strategy.
“Clinton would be wise to be cautious in approaching increased military ties to either Vietnam or the Philippines, given our own complicated history with these countries,” he said.