Vietnam is notorious for deploying a heavy hand against those that oppose Communist Party policy, but the government is also acutely aware of the potential to generate a powerful opposition force at next year’s CPV Congress should Giap’s peers play on anti-Chinese prejudices.
‘Giap is a patriot who wants the resources of the country to remain under Vietnamese control,’ Pringle says. ‘By kowtowing to China, the pro-China faction seems to think this is the way to go now. But from all my experience it is exactly not the way to go. The Chinese will simply play to it and up the ante.’
Greenwood says the government’s response to the anti-China faction was to close down opponents of the bauxite mining project, and by extension mute any anti-Chinese rhetoric.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But at the same time, Hanoi has also sought to enhance national defence through a series of major arms deals with Russia worth billions of dollars. The most notable of these weapons purchases are 6 Kilo-class submarines and up to 20 Su-30 fighter-bombers. This deal also encourages a greater Russian participation in Vietnam’s oil and gas industry, particularly in the disputed South China Sea, a move sure to irritate Beijing.
‘Major arms deals are also believed to be in the pipeline with France,’ Greenwood says. ‘The military remains a powerful force in Vietnam, and the Party must respect its concerns – which include demands for more modern equipment to safeguard national sovereignty.’
The timing of the Russian arms deal—which is likely to lead to the first direct Russian participation in Vietnam’s defence infrastructure since Moscow withdrew its naval forces post-1989—may reflect domestic political concerns more than any external military threat. The government is also understood to be seeking helicopter and transport aircraft from France.
‘The surge in defence spending a year ahead of the Congress, particularly for weapons systems that intrinsically appear to be directed at somehow countering growing Chinese military power in the region, may be seen in Hanoi as a small price to pay for giving the appearance of standing up to Beijing—regardless of the economic and military realities,’ Greenwood says.
Either way, it appears to be a case of back to the future. Vietnam is revising an old Cold War strategy and playing the Russians off against the Chinese in return for military assistance while appeasing the anti-Beijing faction at home. But the difference between now and then is that Vietnam has total control, while independent reporting has been judged anathema and so severely curtailed.
The result is a shame, especially considering a great political battle is looming. The idea that this battle is being played out between two sides—those loyal to Nong Duc Manh and the cadre of General Vo Nyugen Giap—should be of interest not only for the acolytes of Uncle Ho, but to a broader domestic and international audience as well.