Generations of French school children grew up learning never to forget Alsace-Lorraine, territory that France lost to Prussia in the war of 1871. Chinese students launched a protest movement in 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles gave the Shandong Peninsula – the birthplace of Confucius – to Japan.
To many Vietnamese today, the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos off the eastern coast of Vietnam evoke the same sort of homeland emotions. These island chains, whose ownership is contested by multiple countries but occupied mainly by China and Vietnam, have been claimed by Vietnamese imperial dynasties going back centuries.
They straddle strategic sea lanes in the South China Sea and are believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits. Recently, China’s renewed assertion of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea – waters between Vietnam and the Philippines and stretching down to Indonesia – have enflamed nationalist passions in Vietnam. At the same time, Hanoi’s muted reaction to Beijing’s stance stirred popular outrage at home and across the diaspora.
While all Vietnamese, including the ruling communists, are keenly aware of centuries of domination by their big northern neighbor, the Hanoi regime is conflicted in how to deal with Beijing. It relies on China for political support, photocopying Beijing’s model of open economics and closed politics. It is reluctant to openly criticize China, fearing that to criticize China is to condemn itself.
For a party that came to power in the name of national independence, the perceived legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party might evaporate if people realize how it has put the interest of the regime before that of the nation. In a culture where history matters, there are three important approaching anniversaries that worry Vietnam’s communist leaders.
Fifty years ago, the People’s Republic of China issued a declaration essentially claiming the entire South China Sea as an inland lake. Within days, on September 14, 1958, prime minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to his counterpart Chou En-lai, acknowledging China’s claim. The motivation of the Hanoi communists was simple: they needed China’s military support in the war against the US-backed South Vietnam.
However, the Hanoi communists had given away what wasn’t theirs to give. The Geneva Accords of 1954 divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Both the Paracels and Spratly are located below the 17th parallel and legally belonged to South Vietnam. To this day, Beijing uses the Pham Van Dong note to support its claims over the islands. This document, which never had any legal force, is listed on the website of China’s Foreign Ministry under a section titled “International recognition of China’s sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands”.
As the 50-year anniversary of the Pham Van Dong concession approaches, activists in Vietnam are demanding that the Hanoi government officially recall the diplomatic note. This is a public discussion that authorities would rather not have and it remains to be seen what the official reaction will be. If the leadership ignores or, even worse, represses these demands, it will confirm a growing view that the Hanoi communists were complicit in ceding Vietnamese islands to China.
In November 2007, China formalized its annexation of the Paracels and Spratlys by incorporating the two archipelagoes into a newly formed administrative unit (known as “Tam Sa”) governed out of Hainan province. When this decision became known, Vietnamese students and bloggers organized unprecedented protests outside Chinese diplomatic offices in Hanoi and Saigon. These protests lasted two consecutive weekends until Vietnamese security police harassed and detained many of the organizers.
As the one-year anniversary of the Tam Sa incorporation arrives, Vietnamese youth may again take to the streets. This time, will the government shut down blogs and imprison people for asserting Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty? In the last year, Hanoi has become a member of the United Nations Security Council. Many are questioning whether Hanoi will use its lofty post to advocate for an international settlement of the South China Sea dispute.
Toward the end of the Vietnam War, China took advantage of South Vietnam’s weakening military position by attacking the Paracel Islands, which were garrisoned by Vietnamese troops. In the naval battle of January 19, 1974, and subsequent Chinese amphibious landings, 53 Vietnamese sailors and soldiers lost their lives defending the islands. The Saigon government protested the unprovoked invasion, while the Hanoi government expressed support for China’s moves against what it called “American puppets”.
Now, almost 35 years later, as the old propaganda fades away, a fair assessment of history reveals an inconvenient truth for the Hanoi communist leadership. During the most difficult days of the country’s civil war, the Southern side which the communists always vilified, valiantly fought to hold on to part of the fatherland. This is in contrast to the short-sighted Northern side which welcomed the Chinese occupation of the Paracels for its near-term war aims.
By Vietnamese custom, ancestors and national heroes are venerated. Some 35 years after the Battle of the Paracel Islands, bloggers and historians in Vietnam are beginning to revisit the history. This creates another dilemma for the regime: will it prevent citizens from publicly discussing the past? How will authorities react to remembrance ceremonies for the 53 Vietnamese sailors and soldiers who died in battle?
Two conflicts, one solution
There are really two brewing conflicts arising from the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The first conflict is between China, Vietnam and other countries with a stake in the outcome.
Beijing’s thirst for energy supplies and desire for global prominence has led to an increasingly aggressive stance, threatening freedom of navigation, fishing rights and contracts for energy exploration. The issue of the South China Sea needs to be elevated to regional and international fora where a peaceful resolution acceptable to all parties can be achieved.
The second conflict is between Vietnam’s rulers and its people. Because the interests of the two are not necessarily aligned, how Hanoi and many Vietnamese people want to address the issue differs. As on the international level, there needs to be a free and open discussion within Vietnam regarding the history of the Paracels and Spratlys and on ways to resolve Vietnam’s claims.
The matter of these islands can be explosive, and the Hanoi leadership knows it. During a meeting this summer, the Communist Party’s Central Committee discussed the growing dissatisfaction among students and intellectuals with how the government was responding to Chinese aggressiveness, and came up with no remedies.
The solution to the South China Sea problem is open, frank dialogue on the international level and within Vietnam. The Hanoi regime must be willing to raise the matter in international fora and the Vietnamese people must have the right to freely express their views on this issue of national importance.
The failure of the Communist Party to defend Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty and its insistence on repressing domestic expressions of patriotism call into question the very legitimacy of its rule.