But relations with China struck their lowest ebb in 1979, when Beijing launched a series of incursions along its southern border with Vietnam as a diversionary tactic to provide some support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist had all but obliterated life in Cambodia and had ingratiated itself with Beijing while launching its own strikes deep inside Vietnamese territory.
Hanoi struck back and launched its invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 while feuding with Beijing. However, China’s retaliation along the Vietnamese border to protect its Cambodian ally went embarrassingly wrong.
‘The Vietnamese gave the Chinese a bloody nose. Basically it was a series of scuffles along the border and the Vietnamese did well. It gave the Chinese something to think about as well,’ says Pringle. ‘The Americans always thought the Vietnamese were just Chinese puppets and they were just wrong.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Relations finally improved with the end of the Cold War and pragmatism and economics now dominate ties. In 2009, Hanoi’s trade deficit with Beijing exceeded US$11 billion, or more than 90 percent of Vietnam’s overall deficit.
Ho Chi Minh City has served as the country’s biggest growth engine. The city generated more than 20 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product last year and 30 percent of all tax revenues. Officials claim the city’s economic growth has averaged more than 10 percent a year since 1986.
In addition, Greenwood says, Vietnam also serves as a lever for international companies with manufacturing plants—in both China and Vietnam—in seeking to maximize their competitive pricing strategies by switching (or threatening to switch) production from one country to the other.
‘It could be argued that present relations may be returning—however gradually and subtly—to the status quo that prevailed before the Tang dynasty collapsed around 900 CE (AD),’ he adds.
Russian Roulette; Back to the Future
People like Giap are always mindful of the heavy price paid by the Vietnamese for independence. In the conflict against the United States, about 58,000 American lives were lost along with a few thousand more from the countries that actively supported Washington in South Vietnam. About three million Vietnamese perished.
In pushing their point, Giap’s supporters will be looking to next year’s CPV Congress, the 11th five-year congress, which will prioritize party policy, provide a platform for future leaders and an opportunity to vent rising anger over the cosy relationship between Beijing and some in the politburo in Hanoi.
After invading Vietnam in 1979, and the pursuit of a phony war throughout the 1980s, Barton says China only made its peace with its ‘Little Sister’ in 1990. It’s a moniker widely loathed in Hanoi when used by the Chinese. But officials in the Vietnamese capital have added their own twist and often use it to brand Ho Chi Minh City as its ‘Naughty Little Sister,’ a term signifying the city’s traditional reputation for vice, hedonistic pleasures and recalcitrant attitudes to the North.
‘Today…the Dragon and the Tiger are rising in tandem, with each seeming to welcome the success of the other,’ Barton says in regards to China and Vietnam. ‘If the West wants to understand China and how best to engage with it, then it will find no more knowledgeable and serious guide than Vietnam. That fact alone means that in the “Age of China” we should be paying much more attention to Vietnam than we have been in the habit of doing.’