One afternoon in mid-December, Colonel Tran Dang Thanh shared his views on foreign affairs with an audience of deans and professors drawn from Hanoi’s many universities. Like all Vietnamese Communist Party business, Thanh’s comments were considered state secrets. However, unbeknownst to Thanh, who teaches at Vietnam’s top military college, someone in the audience was wired. A full text was soon uploaded to the Internet and went viral.
The occasion was a meeting of senior Party cadre who administer or teach at colleges and universities in the capital area, and who double as functionaries charged with propaganda and training. They had been convened to hear Thanh lecture on the situation in the South China Sea.
China’s relentless encroachments on islets and sea areas claimed by Vietnam have been an intractable problem for the regime. For several years now, the government has been the object of trenchant online criticism for what bloggers regard as a limp response to Chinese provocations.
Thanh’s principal mission was to explain why, in the view of Vietnam’s leaders, a policy of restraint is the nation’s only rational course vis-เ-vis its huge neighbor. Had he stuck to that theme, the recording might not have made much of a splash. However, Thanh chose to embroider his two-hour talk with riffs on the treachery of Americans, the admirable qualities of the North Korean and Iranian regimes, the likely return of Russia to the region, and a lengthy, sometimes impenetrable discussion of Vietnam’s millennium-plus co-existence with the resurgent giant to the north.
For critics of the Vietnamese regime, the rambling remarks of this hitherto obscure professor epitomize what’s wrong with the nation’s politics. It is not the foreign policy discussion that has most energized the blogosphere, however.
Domestic attention has riveted on a short passage near the beginning of Thanh’s talk, when he noted that in his first term as President of Russia, Vladimir Putin had banned Communist Party activities and abolished the pensions of former Soviet Union officials. That could also happen in Vietnam if the Party were to fall from power, Thanh warned.
“Comrades now working don’t yet have a pension but sooner or later, we’ll all be eligible for our retirement pay, and we hope every one of us will draw it in full. I’m explaining this so that each of you realizes that defending our nation and socialist ideology covers a lot of things, and among these is the very practical fact that we are protecting our own pensions and the pensions of those who will come after us… So, I have to say clearly, we must do everything we can to protect our socialist Vietnamese regime at all costs.”
Not once did Thanh bother to mention the Party’s familiar propaganda themes, snorted blogger Dong Phung Viet. He said nothing about striving to create a nation that’s “peaceful, independent and socialist, just and democratic, sovereign and secure throughout its entire territory.”
For their part, resident diplomats are doubtless poring over Thanh’s tour of the world as viewed from Hanoi. He singled out five nations for discussion: the United States, Russia, Iran, North Korea and China. In summary, Thanh said:
On the United States: “To tell the truth, the US is implementing a two-faced policy. One face uses Vietnam as an advanced force to block China. The other face employs every means to destroy the long-standing solidarity between the people of Vietnam and the people of China. … The Americans really want to set up a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, one of the three best harbors in the world. … The Americans are pushing a strategy of ‘peaceful change’ [of the Vietnamese regime] and they seek to implement it through ‘educational cooperation’ with us.”
On Russia: “Resurgent, with an economy powered by endless reserves of oil and gas and cutting edge defense industries, what does Russia want of us?… It is intent on returning to East Asia. In the past, Russia gave strong support to our army and navy. Now through us, they see a way back to the region. The Russians have a high opinion of Vietnam. They see us as loyal and faithful. … and like the Americans, they really want us to rent Cam Ranh Bay to them. … which of course we’re not going to do.”
On Iran: “There are 1.1 billion Muslims between us and Europe. They are warrior peoples… who want to remold the world according to Allah’s plan. Now the Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to pursue its nuclear development plan to secure a peaceful environment. I won’t go into whether Iran is building nuclear weapons or not… but certainly the Iranians have enough strength to defend their interests.”
On North Korea: “Its people are economically poor, but overflowing with love of country, like us Vietnamese in the 1960s and ’70s. They’re on a war footing. They launch rockets … and get respect. Whatever the North Koreans say, they do. They’re also determined to become a nuclear nation. They cause the big countries to lose sleep worrying about their rockets. That’s something we need to study.”
On China: (At this point, Thanh launched into a 20-minute digression on Vietnam’s long history of cultural borrowing from China whilst fighting off invading armies every 200 years or so. Eventually he got to China’s economic take-off under former leader Deng Xiaoping and “Deng’s burning desire”, mastery of the South China Sea.)
Defensive considerations and the lure of vast supplies of oil and gas not far from home are driving China’s policy, Thanh said. That’s made China the principal threat to Vietnam’s claims to its offshore waters and islands. But not, Thanh emphasized, the only threat.
Segueing into a discussion of South China Sea issues, Thanh pounded away at the notion that war with China is unthinkable, without ever quite saying so. There are 1.3 billion of them, and only 90 million of us, he noted. Thus, for Vietnam, China must be a special case. “We must never forget that they’ve invaded us over and over, yet we also must always remember that China made great sacrifices to supply us in our wars against France and the US. We must not seem ungrateful for that.”
Thanh heaped scorn on the notion that Vietnam could rely on American support. “They never have and never will treat us well. If they’re nice here, if they praise us there, support us in the South China Sea, it’s because they’re trying to use a small fish to catch a big one.”
The first principal of Vietnam’s strategy therefore must be to safeguard its independence and self-determination, Thanh asserted, stealing an oft-repeated line from independence hero Ho Chi Minh. But it must also give top priority to preserving a peaceful environment, he argued. This was not an easy task, indeed a contradictory one, and the key to accomplishing it is preserving solidarity between the people of Vietnam and the people of China.
Four things must be avoided, Thanh declared: military confrontation, economic confrontation, isolation and dependence on a foreign country.
Getting back the Paracel Islands (from which China evicted South Vietnamese troops in 1974) will be difficult, Thanh acknowledged, but we’ve got to try, going at it cleverly, avoiding a direct clash. We told the Chinese, he said, that our historical claim to the islands is better than yours. Let’s fight it out in the International Court of Justice. If it rules against us, we’ll accept that.
Finally, Thanh double-underscored the relevance of his presentation to the assembled dons. Illegal demonstrations against Chinese aggression do not serve Vietnam’s interest, he declared. Enemies of Vietnam have been using the South China Sea problem to stir up students. There have been too many demonstrations and they must stop now, he argued.
“It’s up to all of you school leaders,” Thanh said bluntly. “The Party expects you to manage your kids. If we find that students from your school are taking part in demonstrations, you can be sure there will be a black mark on your record.”