Love-hate thy neighbor in Vietnam

Posted on August 7, 2012


Protest against China in Hanoi on Jube 5, 2012

HO CHI MINH CITY – Last weekend’s anti-China protests in Hanoi marked a further chapter in the feud between China and Vietnam over sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Sunday’s rally was the ninth such protest in the past 10 weeks as China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea fans the fires of Vietnam’s historic suspicions of its northern neighbor’s territorial ambitions.

Tensions between the two countries have been escalating throughout the year, increasing exponentially after China’s establishment last month of the city of Sansha, Hainan, to oversee the disputed islands. The move was in apparent response to the passage in June by Hanoi’s National Assembly of legislation that pronounced Vietnamese sovereignty over the island chains.

The protests were dispersed by police, with about 20 people detained and sent to government re-education centers traditionally used for sex workers and drug offenders, according to news reports. The crackdown, however, places the Vietnamese government in the somewhat conflicted position of ordering the detainment of those who are supportive of its stiffening position on the escalating territorial dispute.

While the nationalistic anti-China sentiment embedded in Vietnam’s grassroots might be a helpful political tool, the Communist Party-led government is limited in how far it can allow the protests to spiral in the face of China’s increasingly provocative stance. While in Beijing the issue may be mainly about territory and the potential mineral riches it holds, for Vietnam the dispute holds much greater significance. As China rises in regional influence, Vietnam is increasingly defining itself and its popular history in terms of its historic conflicts with China.

Every advance in Vietnam’s staccato liberation from more than a thousand years of Chinese subjugation remains a cause for national celebration, with street names still bearing the names of national heroes who fought against the Chinese. In recent times, that includes the short and bloody 1979 border war, a conflict in which nationalists like to cast Vietnam as the diminutive and ultimately victorious David to China’s unwieldy Goliath.

While historical triumphs against China may loom large in the popular Vietnamese imagination, current realities are less romantic. In 2011, both governments reported in glowing terms expanding bilateral trade of some US$40 billion, representing a 30% increase on 2010’s $27 billion figure. Both sides have agreed to strive for a target of $60 billion by 2015. While these are significant figures for both developing countries, for smaller Vietnam – which is still clawing its way out of widespread poverty – the trade revenues are more critical.

While Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has historically squashed any form of public protest, it is equally aware that the recent anti-China rallies can be utilized for its own political ends, particularly as economic growth begins to slow amid global weakness. By focusing international attention and news reports on China’s actions in the South China Sea, it increases the likelihood of some form of internationally negotiated agreement over the contested area.

The United States, for instance, has said it has a core interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has called on all sides – including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan – to reach a multilateral settlement to their competing claims. Over the weekend, China blasted the US for stirring the troubled waters, punctuated by a summoning and sharp statement delivered to Washington’s ambassador in Beijing.

While a greater international role in the dispute might be Hanoi’s intention, its caution with regard to the rallies is also justified. The Communist one-party state clearly fears that protests against China could spiral into something larger against its rule and legitimacy. Given the embedded grassroots hostility toward China, many in the anti-China movement would like to see the government take a stronger stand vis-a-vis Beijing.

That puts Hanoi between a rock and a hard policy place. On the one hand, the government wants to take – and perhaps more important, be seen taking – a more assertive stance in its dealings with China. On the other, it is acutely aware of the economic need for continued good trade and investment relations with its bigger, richer northern neighbor.

Further complicating the situation for Hanoi is the highly vocal and well-organized presence within the anti-China protest movement of many of the pro-democracy and human-rights activists the state has long worked to suppress. Authorities have rounded up and detained several independent bloggers who reported on earlier anti-China protests censored in the state-controlled media and posted commentaries questioning the government’s position.

An Ha Thien Hue, a software engineer from Ho Chi Minh City and a fairly typical representative of Vietnam’s emerging professional middle class, is one of many anti-China protesters who view the current dispute with China in historical and military terms. For Hue, China’s recent formal establishment of Sansha to oversee the Paracel Islands, and announced plans to install a military garrison in the archipelago itself, was nothing less than an invasion of Vietnamese territory by stealth. (China took military control of the islands after a short armed conflict with South Vietnam in 1974.)

“The islands are easy for China to take, but hard for them to hold against Vietnam. Vietnam loves peace and hates war, but is ready to fight,” he said.

It’s a sentiment Vietnamese dissident groups fighting for broader issues are bidding to exploit. For the US-based parent association for many Vietnamese youth groups, the dispute has highlighted the government’s weakness in the face of a patriotic groundswell.

“We believe the protesters are taking a role that their government has insufficiently played to express national support for the islands,” said Andrew-Brian Nguyen, a spokesman for the group. He said the government in Hanoi had failed to protect the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

With China digging in its heels, any peaceful settlement on the future of the contested island chains looks ever more distant. As such people familiar with the situation said further anti-China protests can be expected in the weeks ahead. So far that underground movement has not translated into street-level violence against Chinese investments and citizens in Vietnam. But as grassroots anti-China sentiment spreads, the government faces a dilemma on whether to channel or suppress the surge in nationalism.

Simon Cordall

South China Sea Dispute: The Farce of Chinese Multilateralism

In the most dangerous turn of events in the South China Sea, on July 23, China’s military body, the Central Military Commission approved the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army to guard the islands claimed by it. Earlier in June, China’s State Council had raised the administrative status of the seas to the level of a city, which it calls Sansha and which is located in the disputed Paracel Islands. These two moves indicate Beijing’s growing aggressiveness and unilateralism, which clearly go against the spirit of the 2002 DOC (Declaration of Conduct of parties), a multilateral political document agreed upon by the ASEAN and China that calls for resolution of ‘territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat of force.’

The main hindrance to the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is, of course, China’s aversion to any multilateral solution to what is in effect a multilateral dispute arising out of the competing territorial claims of China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. From the beginning China has insisted on bilateral negotiations with individual Southeast Asian countries.

In fact, the Chinese government held that ‘major regional security issues related to territorial dispute is best handled by bilateral negotiations rather than by multilateral means’. Although Beijing accords multilateralism a more central place in Chinese foreign policy, it however subordinates it to the principle of sovereignty. This was palpable during the 1995 Second ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting, which laid out three stages of development of regional security cooperation: confidence building; preventive diplomacy; and, conflict resolution strategies.

While adhering to the first stage, the PRC has displayed serious reservations about the second and third stages since the preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution processes conflicted with China’s sovereignty issues. Needless to point out, the bilateral mechanism allows China to keep the multiple claimants divided and confused about the territorial resolution and offers Beijing greater manoeuvrability in the negotiating process. In other words, resolution of the South China Sea dispute has been crippled from the beginning on account of China’s limited and pretentious multilateralism and its strong emphasis on the principle of national sovereignty. To add to the present crisis, China has unilaterally gone ahead and laid claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea. This has clearly rendered China’s multilateralism as a completely farcical foreign policy formulation.

Indeed, China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea have rendered multilateralism a mere sham. Multilateralism, in the Chinese understanding, emerged essentially as a strategic tool to oppose US hegemonic and unilateralist policies. It was also meant to achieve an equitable international political and economic order by allowing Beijing a larger share in the decision making process. Further, it was also aimed at diminishing the ‘China threat theory’ and building an image of a responsible China among the Southeast Asian countries. But by going unilateral on the South China Sea, China has, in effect, acted not any differently from the United States.

Beijing’s unilateralism in the South China Sea also invalidates its theoretical proposition of the New Security Concept (NSC), out of which evolved China’s own understanding of multilateralism. Ironically, the NSC was explained at the ASEAN’s 30th anniversary in December 1997 by the then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen as China’s cooperative security model opposed to the US hegemonic unilateral model. It set out the principles of international relations based on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination. NSC also claimed to offer “an alternative system for managing relations between countries which differ in their social systems, values and developmental levels.” In the subsequent period, riding on the principles of the NSC, the formulation of peaceful rise was made, which now lies shattered under the impact of China’s unilateral measures in the South China Sea and which are threatening to push the region into a war-like scenario.

China’s motivation of national aggrandizement couched in the peaceful altruistic notion of the NSC is in reality not an alternative model of international relations. When the Chinese leadership speaks of ‘setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development’ in the South China Sea, it means four things:

“the sovereignty of the territories concerned belong to China; when conditions are not ripe to bring about a territorial solution, discussion on sovereignty may be postponed; the territories under dispute may be developed in a joint way; and, the purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through cooperation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial ownership.”

Embedded in this Chinese perspective on resolution of disputed territories are two issues: First, China’s retention of the sovereignty prerogative despite the competing claims; and second, its aversion to multilateralism in conflict resolution. Clearly, China’s ideas of multilateralism and sovereignty are based on the Westphalian model of state building and do not in any manner offer an alternative system.

Thus, multilateralism is basically a farce in Chinese foreign policy. For China, the South China Sea dispute is merely a sovereignty issue in which it brooks no interference of external forces. It opts to settle the issue on its own terms rousing nationalism, constructing false historiography and displaying military muscle. Paradoxically, on the one hand it upholds ‘joint development’ of disputed areas, but on the other it criticizes the US for upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and for displaying a ‘Cold War mentality’. In the ultimate analysis, on territorial and sovereignty related issues, China is likely to increasingly display unilateral tendencies. This is commensurate not only with China’s growing power but also with the relative decline of the United States.

Abanti Bhattacharya

Posted in: Politics