Anti-China sentiment has in recent months been more focused and far more public in Vietnam than it has been years. And, although tensions may have been eased by an agreement between the two countries last week to hold discussions twice a year to resolve differences over the South China Sea – and to set up a hotline between the two countries – some of the recent incendiary rhetoric indicates just how deep mistrust runs.
Certainly, the recent flare-up is far from the first time in recent years that nationalist rhetoric has threatened to boil over. In 2008, there was a minor diplomatic spat between the two countries when a faked plan for a Chinese invasion of Vietnam circulated the internet, a plan purportedly aimed at ‘reclaiming’ what was traditionally a Chinese vassal state. The whole thing proved to be nonsense – 300,000 troops invading via the northern borders and South China Sea – but it raised hackles in Vietnam and the country lodged a protest with China.
Jokes about invasion, a sore point when you’ve suffered some thousand years under the Chinese yoke and name your best streets for those who led rebellions against the invaders, were one thing. But many wondered why Beijing, with its Great Firewall, didn’t take the sites down and slap the wrists of the authors of the hoax.
And this past month, there have been more calls for war – this time not from rogue blogs, but in an article in state-run media. China’s Global Times, an English language paper, ran an opinion piece recommending war with Vietnam and the Philippines. Suggesting a skirmish might ‘put them in their place’ the article argued: ‘We shouldn’t waste the opportunity to launch some tiny-scale battles that could deter provocateurs from going further.’
‘Unfortunately, though hammered by China in the 1974 Xisha Island Battle and later the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, Vietnam’s insults in the South China Sea remained unpunished today,’ it continued. (For the record, Vietnam is widely seen as having come out on top in the short and violent border war of 1979, although Vietnamese casualties were still high).
‘Keep in mind that Vietnam is the only regional country that can give any sort of challenge to China militarily aside from Japan, so China can’t simply steamroll Vietnam or treat it like a child,’ says Jennifer Richmond, a China expert with Stratfor, a private intelligence company. ‘Nevertheless, China continues to have the upper hand in the relationship.’
Meanwhile, former foes have been developing much closer relations with Vietnam. The warming ties with the United States have received the most attention, but the US isn’t alone in reaching out. For example, on August 18, Australia and New Zealand held a joint memorial service to celebrate Long Tan Day. The day, known as Vietnam Veterans’ Day in Australia, marks the biggest battle between Australian and New Zealand servicemen against the Vietnamese. Eighteen allies and hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in a fire fight in a rubber plantation. Now, a replica of the original commemorative cross stands there, one of only two in the nation.
The Australian ambassador, who also remembered the fallen Vietnamese in his speech, said that such events were proof of closer ties between Vietnam and Australia. Indeed, many younger Vietnamese don’t even know that Australia fought during what is called the American War here in Vietnam.
But relations with China remain stubbornly prickly. The border between the two nations was only finally demarcated at the very end of 2008, while relations were only normalised in the 1990s after the 1979 border war. Though officially the two nations aver great friendship and shared ideals (Vietnam watches China’s handling of domestic ‘security’ situations with particular interest), even the papers that broadcast this friendship will take a few swipes when tensions flare.
Local newspapers in Vietnam actually broke the story of China’s ‘hostile’ actions in cutting the cables of a Vietnamese survey ship – the incident that sparked some 12 weeks of unusual public protests in Vietnam – and China responded with unusual vitriol.
Public protests ran for over 12 weeks in Vietnam, mostly in the centre of Hanoi, although a couple were staged in Saigon. They were interpreted by most analysts and Vietnam watchers as both a message to China, and a way of relieving public anger over China's moves in the South China Sea.
However, there’s only so far Hanoi can go when alienating China – something that Vietnam is fully aware of. Despite sceptical popular sentiment, there’s also a pro-China faction in the government, and Chinese businesses and two-way trade between the nations has grown noticeably in the past 10 years. China’s heavy investment in Laos and the rest of the region, meanwhile, also gives Beijing more regional clout, including with Vietnam. ‘It does so not only through financial enticements…but also by investment initiatives in countries like Laos and Cambodia, thereby giving it leverage to effect policy-making among Vietnam's neighbours,’ Richmond says.
One of the biggest – and most contentious – Chinese investments is in the bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. There has been widespread opposition to them, from environmentalists to retired government officials and dissidents. Even the respected former soldier Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap has spoken out against the mine.
Meanwhile, although the workings of the ruling party in Vietnam remain opaque to most outsiders, it’s clear that there’s both a pro-China faction and pro-US faction. Interestingly, according to Richmond, ‘It would appear that the Pro-China camp is ascendant. So, despite hedging against China, China continues to have the upper hand.’
Essentially, most analysts agree that Vietnam can’t go on upsetting China without longer lasting repercussions. But with Vietnam also reaching out to potential Chinese rivals like India, including through an oil and gas exploration agreement in the South China Sea, Hanoi may also have to learn to balance an increasingly antagonistic China.