Vietnam and China: shoals ahead

A rumble of popular discontent in Vietnam over territorial and environmental issues signals a new phase in the old relationship between Hanoi and Beijing, says Sophie Quinn-Judge.
Sophie Quinn-Judge
29 April 2010

In 2009, Vietnam’s relationship with China suddenly became a public problem again. By presenting a claim to 80% of the South China Sea to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in May, China formalised territorial ambitions that previously had no sanction under international law. This claim puts the Vietnamese into an awkward position: either they have to accept Chinese dominance of what Vietnam calls “the Eastern Sea”, bordering their long coastline, or they have to engage in an open conflict with their powerful neighbour, something the government in Hanoi would prefer to avoid. But the worldwide Vietnamese community could make backing down a costly choice.

Since the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989 and the subsequent UN-brokered election there, Vietnam and China had settled into a comfortable friendship. The bitter standoff between the two nations, which hit its nadir with a short, destructive Chinese attack in February 1979, was forgotten. Off-the-record, Vietnamese diplomats would remark that they had to be careful to avoid offending their northern neighbour by becoming too friendly with the United States. Such talk was not understood, however, as a desire to move away from China, but as part of the foreign policy of “more friends, fewer enemies.” A broad spectrum of international ties has long been the goal of a reforming Vietnam, rushing to integrate itself into the global economy.

But after two decades of accommodation, the growing power of China is forcing Vietnam to face up to some hard choices. The situation is especially complicated for the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), which since the terminal crisis of eastern-European communism in 1989, has identified closely with the policies of the Chinese party: rapid economic reform combined with a communist-party monopoly on political life and state institutions.

Now, as China pressures Vietnam to accept its control of the South China Sea, the Vietnamese party is being forced to admit that the two nations have conflicting interests in a number of areas. One of these areas is access to local resources, such as the waters of the Mekong River. The flow of the water reaching the Vietnamese delta has dropped markedly in the past ten years, as China has constructed a series of hydroelectric dams upriver. The threat to the Mekong could become a matter of life and death for many south Vietnamese. But at the moment the biggest conflict between China and Vietnam concerns access to the fish, oil and gas found in and under the South China Sea. 

An underground spark

Popular alarm about China’s role in Vietnam bubbled to the surface in 2009 in connection with a controversial mining venture, on dry land. The party announced an agreement that would allow China to mine and process bauxite in the central-highlands region. What was originally announced as a boost to the Vietnamese economy soon began to appear as a long-term danger: the Chinese let it be known that they would be bringing in their own workers to run the project, raising the spectre of a permanent Chinese settlement in this strategically sensitive area. It turned out that there would be few jobs for Vietnamese workers.

Moreover, there was no sign of an environmental-impact statement – a crucial element in that it is well known that bauxite mining leaves behind a scarred landscape and produces effluents that pollute farmland and water sources. By the late spring, 139 Vietnamese intellectuals had signed a petition requesting that the government rescind the agreement on bauxite production. Many overseas Vietnamese also appended their names to the petition, as did a number of high-ranking military men. One of the leading figures opposing the bauxite project was General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the last surviving leaders of the revolutionary era, who still possesses enough moral credibility to be an influential critic when he sees the party straying off course issues (see David G Marr, “Vibrations from the north”, Inside Story, 31 August 2009).

The word circulating in Hanoi in summer 2009 was that a number of generals (the rumour said thirty) had been retired early, as retribution for their opposition to the bauxite project. The mining plan was then discussed in the national assembly, and within three days most dissenting deputies had been persuaded to withdraw their opposition. By March 2010 the project was in the early phase of construction, and local-government officials were assuring the Vietnamese press (a few journalists still dared to ask questions) that the environmental impact would be closely monitored. The Chinese role in the project was barely mentioned in these press reports. It has been rumoured that at least one of the party leaders received a Chinese payoff for supporting the project. In any event, the party’s handling of the bauxite issue suggests that it has broad support from Vietnam’s most powerful men.

A contested claim

This affair on its own would not be enough to upset Vietnamese-Chinese relations for long, but it is symptomatic of larger questions. What is shifting the balance in the two states’ relations is China’s growing economic and military clout. China’s unilateral claim to the maritime territory within a “u-shaped line” scooping down to the north of Borneo demonstrates confidence that it can now defend what it considers its sphere of influence. Recently China has started to refer to the South China Sea as one of its core interests, on a par with Taiwan and Tibet.

In this case Beijing bases its claim on possession of two island groups: the Paracels and Spratlys, which would enable it in turn to invoke the 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic zone approved by the United Nations. Many of these scattered islands are little more than sandbars, and sovereignty over them is contested by several other states; but were China able to establish ownership, this would enable control of key shipping-lanes and of an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. Some observers believe, however, that the Chinese may now have overplayed their hand by raising the stakes in this territorial dispute.

Vietnam has been attempting to defend its own claim to islands in the Paracel and Spratly groups since the country reunified in 1976, but with little success. On the contrary, Hanoi has conceded some of its territorial waters to China in a border agreement on the Gulf of Tonkin, and even agreed to joint naval patrolling in 2006. But despite these concessions and publicly cordial relations, the Chinese have since May 2009 been ramming or seizing Vietnamese fishing-boats that stray into what they claim as their zone, which the Vietnamese consider their traditional fishing grounds. Fishermen have been held hostage or their catch of fish confiscated, to considerable public outrage in Vietnam.

China forced the south Vietnamese garrison in the Paracels out of the archipelago in 1974, as the Vietnam war was winding down. No one raised an eyebrow at the time, as the United States was preoccupied by the Soviet threat in the Pacific. Vietnam’s historical claim to these islands goes back to at least the early years of the Nguyen family’s rule (from 1802); emperors Gia Long (r. 1802-20) and Minh Mang (r. 1820-41) sent expeditions to chart the waters around the islands, which appear as Vietnamese possessions on maps drawn by early French missionaries. The claim also reflects the fact that fishermen from central Vietnam have long exploited the sea resources here and conducted salvage operations in the treacherous waters. The French had sovereignty over these territories until the second world war, and South Vietnam inherited this claim.

Even with the purchase of six kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia, there is no chance that Vietnam could win a naval confrontation with China. And the Vietnamese know that enlarging their military will not help build confidence among other nations in the region. Instead they are banking on their chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in 2010 to build a multilateral consensus to support their call for negotiations on sharing the resources of the South China Sea. (The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia also have maritime claims which conflict with China’s territorial ambitions.) (see Edward Wong, “Vietnam Enlists Allies to Stave Off China’s Reach”, New York Times, 4 February 2010).

A declaration of 2002 on a code of conduct signed by Asean and China, on issues such as environmental protection and search-and-rescue protocols, may be a model for future negotiations. But this agreement has no legal force and discussions to extend its coverage have stalled in recent years. What could promote a breakthrough in negotiations with China would be the agreement of the US and Japan to join in a multilateral solution.

A national question

There is speculation within Vietnam that some party leaders would rather see Vietnam turned into “another province of China” than risk undermining the power of the VCP by establishing closer ties with Washington. Yet threats to territorial integrity are now taken more seriously in Hanoi than they were in the mid-2000s.

The four major threats to the nation as designated by the programme being prepared for the next party congress in 2011 are 1) economic backwardness, 2)hostile forces and peaceful evolution, 3) territorial disputes and 4) global issues related to food security, energy security and global warming. This list demonstrates the increasing sophistication of Hanoi’s diplomacy, in spite of the fact that fear of “peaceful evolution” - code for the undermining of communist values by contact with the west - is still high on the danger-list (see “Vietnam: the necessary voices”, 29 April 2007).

By now it must be clear to the Vietnamese leadership that more concessions to China will erode the confidence of key strata of the population, including both intellectuals and segments of the military. And despite (or perhaps because) of tight controls on the press and internet, public confidence in government information is not as strong as it used to be. Everything, from figures showing inflation to be under control to optimistic reports on the progress of environmental protection, is received sceptically by newspaper-readers. If the public comes to believe that the communist party, which presents itself as the guardian of national independence, can no longer protect the nation’s key interests, then its legitimacy will be increasingly questioned.


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