Expert opinion - China and Vietnam; over troubled waters

Dr Lingling Mao, senior lecturer in China Studies from the School of Arts and Humanities, on the change in Vietnam's tone over anti-China protests and the media silence in China.

At a recent summit, Chinese president, Xi JinPing, referred to a traditional Chinese saying: "Even as one submerges a gourd bowl in water, there floats the gourd ladle above the surface"  - the idea that tackling one problem would only cause another to emerge. If the recent territorial disputes with Vietnam were indeed such a gourd, it could be argued that he has succeeded in submerging such a problem, if only temporarily.

Earlier this month, China moved an oil rig into the South China Sea, in an area over which China and Vietnam have contested claims. The move sparked a bitter protest from the Vietnamese government and anti-China demonstrations have been held all over Vietnam – the largest that the country has seen in over ten years. More than 20,000 protesters specifically targeted companies with Chinese characters in their logos or signs, leaving four Chinese killed and more than 130 injured.

The Chinese government blamed Hanoi for not checking or holding back this violence, suggesting that Vietnam's key political figures had fanned public sentiment and anger through "high-profile propaganda". One day later, the tone of the Vietnamese government turned; they vowed to stop the violence, arresting over 2,000 protesters. Consequently, what was planned to be the biggest protest yet was aborted and around 20 protesters were "escorted" by Vietnamese police from the front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi.

The Chinese government blamed Hanoi for not checking or holding back this violence.

Dr Lingling Mao

Intriguingly, while foreign, Hong Kong and Taiwan press had extensively reported the anti-China protests and outbreaks, the Chinese state media kept relatively quiet, and only one week after the protests began did the Chinese Central Television station cover the story.

This all begs the question: why has the Vietnamese government changed their position so swiftly, and why has Chinese state media acted so indifferently?

An obvious answer for the former is that Vietnam still relies heavily on China for its economic development. Vietnam is now the second fastest-growing economy in Asia, and China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, with a bilateral trade of $51 billion in 2013.

With China currently undertaking an economic structural readjustment, a large number of industries have been transferred to Vietnam, vastly boosting the country's economy. China's direct investment in Vietnam soared 7.1-fold to $2.27 billion in 2013 on an approval basis. China has also opened 112 industrial factories, employing 100,000 Vietnamese in 2013. China also provided Vietnam's largest visitor source market in 2013 with more than one-in-four of all visitors to Vietnam.

When Beijing made it clear that if the Vietnamese government were to fail to contain such violence in a timely manner, Vietnam's development momentum would be sacrificed, the market responded immediately and the country's key stock market index dropped 5.9%, its biggest one-day decline in 13 years. Vietnam simply cannot afford to lose China.

This could also explain why Vietnam had so far studiously avoided any outright diplomatic confrontation with China. Over the years, bilateral communication channels have been painstakingly maintained, with successive rounds of high-level negotiations held over disputed territories in the South China Sea. Always wary of China's sensitivities, Vietnam has invested in regional mechanisms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to manage its tensions with China over contested territories.

Vietnam's initial bold claims to "condemn China" may also have been stifled by US president Barack Obama's visit to Southeast Asia in late April, where he reassured allies in the region of Washington’s commitment to serve as an anchor of stability in Asia. However, America would not be able to sustain adequate focus upon Vietnam – Obama has plenty more gourds to submerge, always with more gourd ladles floating up above the surface of the water. Their fear is that America would not back them if China crossed a so-called 'red line'.

In its explanation of the relative silence in China's state media, Apple Daily, a Taiwan newspaper that does not see eye to eye with China's Communist party, pointed out that China and Vietnam share the same Communist political system. They suggested that China has categorized Vietnam as the "little brother" of the Communist family, albeit the fact that their relationship had been sour for over sixteen years, only recovering in 1991. For China, a different strategy has to be employed when dealing with "family matters".

For China, a different strategy has to be employed when dealing with family matters.

Dr Lingling Mao

What is interesting is also the timing of the event. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square movement, and Chinese government has already tightened up the security around the Square and is closely observing the internet. As the Vietnam protests killed Chinese citizens, the hot-blooded youths of China could raise the nationalist sentiment, could condemn the government's inability to secure the safety of its citizens, could combine it with commemorating the 1989 movement – all these could easily turn into a fire ball, rolling from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

Yet another equally poignant reason is Beijing's confidence in the total control of this situation. As well as providing Vietnam's current economic lifeline, China has so far had the upper hand in its dealings with Vietnam, which draws from its economic and military advantages, as well as historical reference. Until 1885, Vietnam had at times been a part of China, and at times a Chinese colony. During Mao's era, Vietnam was China’s closest ally in the Communist world and in return China was Vietnam's most generous sponsor. Chinese official figures shows that by 1978 China's aid to Vietnam had reached $200 billion, of which 93.3% was aid-given gratis and 6.7% a no interest loan.

Although the territorial disputes have quietened down now, Vietnam has laid the groundwork for the next strategy to pry the island from China's grasp. Hanoi is pushing hard behind the scenes to bring more foreign players into negotiations, so that China will have to bargain in a multilateral setting with all Southeast Asian nations that have territorial claims in the South China Sea. This goes against China's preference, which is to negotiate one on one with each country.

For Beijing, the gourd of Vietnam may have been submerged for a moment, but with various interested parties making splashes over the troubled waters, how long can this gourd stay beneath the surface?

Dr. Lingling Mao
Senior lecturer in China Studies
Nottingham Trent University

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Expert opinion - China and Vietnam; over troubled waters

Published on 23 May 2014
  • Category: Press; School of Arts and Humanities

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