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A Break with Beijing?: Hanoi Considers Its Options

In the 1950s, when the communists came to power in both Vietnam and China, they warmly called each other “brothers,” affirming significant similarities of culture as well as ideological kinship. Over the years, however, attempts by Vietnam’s elder and stronger brother, China, to exert its authority have not always been accepted by its headstrong sibling. This filial defiance is rooted in a thousand years of Vietnamese resistance to attempts by Chinese feudal dynasties and their successor regimes to dominate it. Memories of that history and especially of the bloody nose the Vietnamese gave the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1979, when it invaded to “teach Vietnam a lesson,” are central to understanding the relationship between the two countries today.

The 1979 clash, a well-remembered event among the current party leaders in Hanoi, came after the Vietnamese, ignoring warnings by Beijing, invaded Cambodia to drive the genocidal Pol Pot, an ally of the Chinese, from power. The Vietnamese, empowered by a recent treaty with the Soviet Union, acted in the face of what they saw as a clear Cambodian intention to violently reclaim the southern territory of “Khmer Krom,” as the Khmer Rouge called parts of South Vietnam, and an increasing sense of being militarily encircled as China armed Pol Pot’s aggressive forces. Xenophobia, historical enmity, and infighting between factions of the Viet Minh, from whom both regimes were descended, seem to have underpinned repeated Khmer Rouge border incursions to kill or kidnap Vietnamese citizens. In late 1978, Pol Pot launched several divisions across into Vietnam. Since previous successful counterattacks had clearly not deterred the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese decided to solve the problem.

In a classic blitzkrieg assault, mounted with Soviet support and advice, T55 tanks and M113 armored carriers led seven columns of the People’s Army of Vietnam that swept westward across Cambodia, incidentally discovering the killing fields and liberating the enslaved population as the Khmer Rouge fled to jungle retreats and mountains along the Thai border. When Vietnam ignored Chinese threats and demands to withdraw, the PLA struck southward and launched an attack involving massive artillery barrages followed by tanks leading human wave attacks. On the first day, tens of thousands of Chinese troops swept more than nine miles into Northern Vietnam. Revealingly, Hanoi kept its nerve and relied on the increasingly effective resistance of its militia formations to blunt the attack, initially refusing to divert military effort from Cambodia. Beijing later claimed (probably honestly, given that it held back its air force) that it always intended its action to be limited in duration and scope, and that its forces had achieved their objective of “punishing” Hanoi by laying waste to the cities and infrastructure of the north before withdrawing. 

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Vietnamese, however, saw and remember a different war—one in which the might of the PLA had faltered against its militia troops, which had caused thirty thousand Chinese casualties while defending rugged mountain terrain from tunnels, caves, and fortifications. Although Beijing never admitted that its military’s performance was sub-standard, the emergence of the modern PLA dates back to the critical self-examination that followed the conflict of 1979.

This brief and bloody clash was clearly not in the long-term economic or domestic interests of either side. Vietnam was still in ruins from the war against the Americans and struggling to rebuild and reunite its population. Its economy was bankrupt and it was reliant on aid from the Soviet Union and East European communist countries for day-to-day survival. China too was in a precarious transition state, beginning to initiate economic reforms and playing the American card to attract the capital and advanced technologies of the West. Why, then, did Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatist who took power after Mao Zedong’s death, invade? Vietnam’s close relations with the USSR may have been a factor, as may Hanoi’s subjugation of Vietnam’s Chinese population after its victory in 1975. (Constituting much of the “merchant class,” they were repressed as potential counter-revolutionaries, driving many to flee as “boat people” and one hundred and fifty thousand to cross directly into China in 1978.) Ultimately, national pride and the desire to maintain the status quo of the sibling relationship was probably the primary reason for the Chinese attack. Whatever the causes, this ugly brawl between the two communist brothers, and the decade of Chinese- (and US-) sponsored insurgency against the Vietnamese army, protecting the regime Beijing had installed in Cambodia, would significantly affect the course of future relations.

 

There were more clashes between the two countries’ navies in the South China Sea over the next decade. In 1988, after a surprise attack, China took over the Johnson South Reef, in Vietnam’s Spratly archipelago, killing dozens of Vietnamese soldiers. But three years later, in 1991, ties were normalized following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the end of European communism, Vietnam had lost moral and economic support, while China saw survival value in a “more friends and fewer enemies” (them ban bot thu) policy as it searched for allies following the sanctions imposed by the United States and Western Europe in response to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Since then, superficially at least, Sino-Vietnam ties have improved. The two countries have declared a comprehensive strategic relationship based on two mottos: “friendly neighborhood, comprehensive cooperation, long-term stability, looking forward to the future” and “good comrades, good friends, good neighbors, good partners.” Supporting this, people-to-people exchanges, visits by top leaders and high-ranking officials, and bi-party theoretical workshops on socialism have been periodically organized to demonstrate how close the bilateral relationship is. However, behind the screen of improved relations, the little brother is not happy.

One reason is Vietnam’s fear that it stands in the way of the ambitious expansionism of its “greedy big brother.” As China’s economy has grown to become the world’s second-largest, it has also reached out to assert control across the length and breadth of the entire South China Sea, casting an envious eye at its natural resources, specifically the estimated oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated nine hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The South China Sea is also one of the busiest shipping routes for increased international trade and oil imports and exports in the Asia-Pacific region. If it is under Chinese control, Beijing will dictate the rules of trade for this crucial maritime route.

Vietnamese behavior in the face of China’s aggressive push into the South China Sea has been colored by its desire to build a relationship based on mutual self-interest, including maintaining the communist brand and keeping communist parties in power. As a result, its reaction to Beijing’s assertion of its maritime claims was initially more deferential and less truculent than those of Japan in the East China Sea or the Philippines in the South China Sea. For example, in 2011, when Chinese marine surveillance ships intentionally cut the cables of a Vietnamese vessel conducting seismic surveys in Vietnam’s waters, Hanoi reacted simply by a diplomatic note of protest calling for compensation, to which China did not respond. When furious anti-Chinese protests took place in Vietnam’s big cities in response to the event, Vietnamese leaders sought to protect the bilateral relationship by arresting and detaining some of the demonstrators.

Things changed on May 2, 2014, when China placed a giant oil-drilling rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, in waters lying within Vietnam’s continental shelf and also within the country’s two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone, dictated by the UN Law of the Sea treaty. China also sent dozens of vessels, including warships, to prevent Vietnamese police ships from approaching the rig. This bold breach of Vietnam’s territory represents the most explosive confrontation between the two countries since the late 1980s.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs first condemned the seizure, followed by a strong speech by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the annual ASEAN Summit, in Myanmar, in which he called China’s aggressive act a threat to regional peace and security. Vietnamese official media carried daily news coverage of an armada of Chinese warships repelling a small flotilla of Vietnamese vessels in the area close to the oil-drilling rig. There were violent riots in industrial parks, where Chinese-owned factories were set on fire; two Chinese were killed and dozens more were injured. China sent vessels and charter flights to Vietnam to evacuate thousands of Chinese workers.

Chinese leaders may have miscalculated how Vietnam’s government and people would react. But the crisis also left Hanoi pondering a key question: whether it should take the ongoing confrontation as an opportunity to break ideologically with Beijing. In the face of international condemnation, the Chinese finally withdrew the oil rig, but they also said that they would continue to drill for oil in waters Vietnam claims as its own. A military confrontation was avoided, but the issue of territorial encroachment remains very much alive.

One thing is clear as a result of this new clash: diplomatic ties between the two communist parties have been severely damaged, and Vietnamese suspicions and concerns about China’s intentions have been intensified. Vietnam and China seem to have halted their bilateral exchanges, and Vietnamese leaders may be rethinking their position vis-à-vis Beijing, though Vietnam has for years tended to defer to its big brother and absorb China’s slights in the interest of peaceful coexistence. However, Vietnam’s government now faces a popular demand to resist. While China holds the best cards, Hanoi is still in the game. Ironically, the Chinese have provided a template for the move Hanoi could make. In 1972, Chinese disputes with the Soviet Union led Mao to “play the America card” and make an opening with the United States. The current conflict in the South China Sea has provided an excuse for Hanoi to do the same thing. There is already a distant friendship with Washington. If it can be developed into a relationship that involves mutual military support, the strategic equation in the South China Sea changes. Vietnam not only breaks away from its ideological reliance on China, but can also assume a bigger role in the region. China is not contained—it is far too powerful for that—but it may be constrained. And that would give Vietnam and other states that dread the growing Chinese maritime presence a little breathing room.

Hai Hong Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland. Charles Knight is a lecturer at Macquarie University.

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