South China Seizure

Duy Hoang

February 6, 2008
Wall Street Journal Asia

When China created a new administrative unit covering three archipelagos in the South China Sea in December 2007 — including two claimed by Vietnam — Beijing re-ignited a vexing dilemma for Hanoi. Should Vietnam assert its national interest by pressing the nation’s historical claim to the disputed territory, or defend the narrow interests of Vietnam’s Communist Party by kowtowing to a Chinese leadership that has lent political support to Hanoi?

This dilemma is the latest development in a long-standing dispute. The Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in the South China Sea consist of tiny islands and reefs with rich fishing and, possibly, petroleum reserves, and are strategically located in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. For countries that have an interest in freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution to maritime disputes, the issue of the South China Sea has strategic implications. Oil from the Persian Gulf to Japan and South Korea passes through these waters. And the American navy does not want China to treat the South China Sea as its personal lake.

Vietnamese imperial dynasties going back several centuries had claimed what are now known as the Paracels and Spratlys. And the Vietnamese aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the islands. China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim all or part of either or both of the chains. Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian even personally inaugurated an airplane runway on one of the Spratlys earlier this month.

In the 20th century, Vietnam’s claim became a bargaining chip in the broader struggle for control of the country. In 1958, four years after the partition of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel, North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong sent a cable to Zhou Enlai acknowledging Beijing’s sweeping claims over the entire South China Sea. Vietnam’s communists hoped that by doing so they’d secure China’s backing for the war against the South.

Never mind that the islands weren’t Hanoi’s to give away at that time — South Vietnam had de jure and de facto possession of the archipelagos because they lay below the 17th parallel. In 1974, taking advantage of the war in Vietnam, Beijing sought to cement its claim by invading the Paracels. In a three-day naval battle, China seized control of the archipelago from South Vietnam. The reaction in the communist North was muted, with Hanoi’s propagandists claiming it was better to have the islands in the hands of a fellow socialist state than those of the Saigon regime.

Following the war, Hanoi officially maintained that the Paracels and Spratlys are Vietnam’s, but often accommodated China’s efforts to cement control over the chains. In recent years, Chinese naval vessels have occasionally fired on Vietnamese fishing boats and killed scores of people in waters off Vietnam, which China treats as its exclusive economic zone. China has called the Vietnamese fishermen pirates. But Vietnamese state media have largely ignored the attacks and in a few tepid articles mentioned the shooting of fishermen by "foreign" ships.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s claims to the islands strike a nationalist chord domestically. Despite the regime’s best efforts to keep the dispute out of people’s minds to avoid stoking tensions with Beijing, it’s still an issue that inflames passions on the street. There have recently been calls from the blogger movement inside Vietnam for the government to bring the issue of the Paracels and Spratlys before the United Nations Security Council. News that China had tightened its administrative grip on the islands unleashed unprecedented student protests outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnamese authorities took steps to deter and subsequently ban street demonstrations. Police went as far as detaining bloggers who publicized the protests. But even so, the pressure may have become a little too great. The official media gave wide coverage to an article in the South China Morning Post several weeks later which quoted a local Chinese official who said he was unaware of the incorporation, in an attempt to downplay the seriousness of China’s recent action.

Complicating matters is Vietnam’s hard-won seat on the Security Council. The regime hoped the seat would be an opportunity to burnish its image at home and abroad. Now Hanoi has to answer to public calls for it to use its lofty position on the world stage to pursue a nationalist territorial claim that runs counter to the best interests of the ruling party.

Without a doubt there are many in the Hanoi regime — and especially the People’s Army of Viet Nam — who are concerned about China’s expansionist moves. But there are an even greater number within the regime who are scared about "peaceful evolution," the Communist Party’s codeword for democratic change, which could result from tilting relations away from China and toward the West. It would be hard for Hanoi to continue following the Chinese model — open economy, closed politics — while confronting its patron at the same time, given Hanoi’s ideological reliance on China. Yet the greatest fear for the regime is not China. It’s that a new generation of Vietnamese are becoming engaged in a debate that pits the national interest against the party interest; that this generation is coming down on the side of the nation; and that they’re less willing to tolerate government censorship of that debate.

Mr. Hoang is a U.S.-based leader of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy, unsanctioned political party active in Vietnam.

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