Hanoi's Symbolic Pushback Against Chinese Expansionism

For the first time, Hanoi has formally marked the deaths of 74 South Vietnamese sailors killed in an attempt to dislodge Chinese forces occupying several of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government, many believe, is trying to stay ahead of public sentiment. On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of the sea battle, activists in Vietnam’s capital shouted anti-China slogans and laid flowers at the statue of Ly Thai To, a nationalist figure. Police allowed the unauthorized event to go on for about a half hour before dispersing the crowd.

Hanoi maintains that China is “illegally” occupying the islands, which sit about 200 nautical miles off Vietnam’s coast. Beijing, for its part, claims about 80 percent of the South China Sea with nine dashes on its official maps. Introduced in the 1940s, the dashes, nicknamed the Cow’s Tongue for the shape they form, indicate that Beijing believes those waters are internal. All other countries, including the US, disagree.

China’s expansive claim is inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has ratified, and optimists long maintained that the Chinese would not enforce such a broad interpretation of the nine dashes. Now, it’s clear they are holding onto their maximalist position. As of the first of this month, regulations issued by the authorities in China’s Hainan Province require “foreigners and foreign fishing vessels entering sea areas administered by Hainan and engaged in fishery production or fishery resource surveys” to receive approval “from the relevant State Council department in charge.” In short, Beijing purports to exercise sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

China’s claims have been backed up by methodical and aggressive seizures of disputed territories. Over the course of decades, Beijing has grabbed specks in the South China Sea—not just Drummond and Duncan Islands, the objects of the 1974 clash with South Vietnam, but also Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys in 1988. Most recently, the Chinese took Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, in 2012. Emboldened by that success, they are now pressuring Manila on Second Thomas Shoal and other territory.

And we have been warned. China’s navy, according to a Chinese media report from this month, intends to seize what Beijing calls Zhongye. The island, one of the Spratlys, is better known as Pagasa because it is in fact inhabited and controlled by the Philippines. The navy says the battle “will be restricted within the South China Sea,” as if that body of water is China’s to use as it pleases.

It is unlikely that China will actually invade Pagasa, part of the Philippines, but belligerent sentiments are often expressed in Chinese military circles these days. It seems not a month passes when one of China’s officers does not publicly call on Beijing to invade some maritime neighbor, as General Liu Yazhou, the political commissar at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, did in a recent interview.

As China pushes beyond its recognized boundaries, countries on its periphery are resisting—and remembering. For years, Hanoi sought to suppress nationalist sentiment, embarrassed that the communist government, having been dependent on Beijing’s massive aid at the time, did not oppose China’s moves in 1974.

Now, Hanoi cannot prevent its citizens from speaking out. “After a long time, the deaths of my husband and others seemed to fall into oblivion, but I’m very glad that they have been mentioned,” said Huynh Thi Sinh, widow of the captain of a Vietnamese vessel fighting the Chinese during the 1974 incident, to online publication VietNamNet. “Maybe in his world he’s feeling satisfied. His sacrifice is very meaningful. I’m proud.”

Her husband died fighting the Chinese, and she is not about to remain silent if her government cedes territory to them. As time passes, the battles of decades ago in Asia become more vivid.

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