Vietnam and China: Balancing Geography and History

Neighbors China and Vietnam share a long, complicated history. China is the dominant partner and most recently pressured Vietnam to cancel an oil-drilling contract in the South China Sea with the Spanish oil firm Repsol. Soon afterward, Vietnam’s defense minister met with his counterpart in Washington and announced approval of a visit by a US aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port. Capitulating to China on big issues close to home and connecting to the United States in economic and symbolic ways follow an old pattern. “Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens, but in its heart, the country values Beijing’s comradeship more,” explains Tuong Vu, author, professor of political science and director of Asian Studies at the University of Oregon. Vietnamese leaders were disappointed in the 1970s as China welcomed the United States and elements of capitalism. The Soviet Union’s end pushed Vietnam to normalize relations with the United State in 1995. By 2005, China was aggressive in enforcing claims over most of the South China Sea, “dashing Vietnamese leaders’ cherished hope that the comradely spirit between the two parties would soar above narrow national interests,” Vu explains. Despite many disappointments, ideology remains a priority in Vietnam’s foreign-policy calculations. – YaleGlobal

Vietnam and China: Balancing Geography and History

Hanoi turns to the United States when China threatens, but values ideological connections for big foreign policy decisions
Tuong Vu
Thursday, August 24, 2017

Comrades, new and old: Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch meets with US Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai embraces Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh during a reunion in the 1950s

EUGENE, OREGON: Relations between China and Vietnam have taken a dive since June, after Chinese General Fan Changlong cut short his visit to Hanoi and cancelled a cross-border gathering for the two militaries aimed to build mutual trust.

The cause of the row was an oil-drilling contract in the South China Sea that Hanoi had signed with the Spanish firm Repsol. Unlike previous occasions, this time Beijing threatened to undertake military measures if Hanoi did not cease and desist. Within a week, Vietnam indeed cancelled the contract and agreed to pay millions of dollars to Repsol as compensation.

China’s direct military threat to Vietnam indicates an escalation of tension in the South China Sea, and Hanoi’s quick kowtow to Beijing has led many to blame Trump’s inward-oriented foreign policy. “The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea” was the title of British journalist Bill Hayton’s article for Foreign Policy magazine.

This is unfair. A week later, Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch arrived in Washington, DC, to meet with his counterpart, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. General Lịch, the political commissar of People’s Army of Vietnam – PAVN – was known as a hardline ideologue in Vietnamese politics. Yet Lịch appeared in the American capital with a rare smile and announced that, for the first time in bilateral history, Vietnam accepted a proposal for a port visit by a US aircraft carrier.

The idea for such a visit had been floated many times – it’s conceivable that a visit could have been made when President Bill Clinton made the icebreaking trip to Vietnam in 2000. Most recently, Trump as president-elect also made the suggestion, but it took Chinese military pressure for the PAVN’s top brass to warm to the idea. General Lịch’s visit, in fact, fits a longstanding pattern of Vietnamese policy toward China and the United States. Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens, but in its heart, the country values Beijing’s comradeship more.

Like Vietnam, China is a socialist country. The relationship between the two communist parties goes back to the 1920s when a young Ho Chi Minh worked alongside fellow revolutionary Zhou Enlai to mobilize peasants in southern China. Few political parties can boast of such a century-long international comradeship. Soon after Mao Zedong and Zhou took power in China, they supported the Vietnamese revolution by sending arms and advisors, helping Ho’s army win a decisive battle over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

During the Vietnam War, Beijing was Hanoi’s big brother as well as its most generous financier. Beijing sent Hanoi billions of dollars in cash, food and military aid even while millions of Chinese died of starvation. For much of the 1960s, more than a 100,000 Chinese troops were stationed permanently in North Vietnam while PAVN soldiers were sent to fight in the south.

Relations turned dramatically as the war ended. Hanoi viewed Mao’s invitation for US President Richard Nixon to visit Beijing in 1972 as a despicably traitorous act. With both Beijing and Moscow courting Washington’s attention and with their victory over the Americans in 1975, Vietnamese leaders began to imagine themselves as vanguards of world revolution. Their ambition to dominate Indochina riled Deng Xiaoping, who sent half a million troops across the border in 1979 to teach the “ungrateful” Vietnamese a lesson.

The border war between the communist brothers lasted until the late 1980s. As the Soviet bloc collapsed and the US-led camp emerged triumphant, Hanoi felt threatened and quickly turned to Beijing, apologizing for the war and proposing a new anti-imperialist alliance. Although Beijing turned down the proposal, bilateral relations were restored in 1991.

To demonstrate a lesson had been learned, Hanoi leaders changed the constitution to remove anti-China passages. While Vietnam grandly celebrated the wars against France and the United States every year, the 1979 war with China was erased from public memory. State-controlled media were prohibited from publishing negative news about Chinese society, economy or politics, and editors who violated the ban were swiftly punished.

To attract much-needed foreign aid and investment once the Soviet bloc was no more, Hanoi sought to expand foreign relations, declaring that Vietnam welcomed friendship with all countries. However, an internal memo by the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party showed that the party distinguished between “close and not so close friends” depending on their ideology.

Vietnam restored relations with the United States in 1995 and concluded a bilateral agreement in 2001. As market reforms gathered steam, Vietnam achieved remarkable success with many exports including seafood, rice and coffee. The United States became the leading market for Vietnamese exports, allowing the country to earn billions of dollars in trade surplus.

Despite the value of the American market for Vietnam, the United States remained in the “not so close” category in the eyes of Hanoi leaders. Washington’s frequent criticism of Vietnam’s violations of human rights infuriated them, and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq prompted deep anxieties. As recently as 2005, PAVN still considered the United States a strategic enemy.

Across the border, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam thrived: Top leaders paid regular annual visits, as did representatives from the military, the Public Security Ministry, the Propaganda Department, the Communist Youth League and various other government organs. No wonder that by 2011 China had overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s top trade partner. By 2014 its trade with China was nearly twice that with the United States. Ironically, Vietnam had a trade deficit with China as large as the trade surplus it enjoyed with the United States.

Problems began by 2005 when China began to aggressively enforce its sovereignty claims over much of the South China Sea, dashing Vietnamese leaders’ cherished hope that the comradely spirit between the two parties would soar above narrow national interests. While pursuing several strategies in response to China’s rising threat, Hanoi consistently assigned greater weight to talks between the two fraternal parties than to multilateral or legal approaches.

When China towed a giant oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, even as Hanoi sent Coast Guard ships to surround the Chinese naval force defending the rig, Party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng tried to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dozen times, hoping in vain that Xi would pick up the phone. On the streets, Vietnamese peacefully protesting against China were beaten, in some cases savagely, by security forces. Trọng later visited Washington, the first for a general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

After the oil rig confrontation, criticisms of China appeared in the Vietnamese press. Nevertheless, no sign exists that Hanoi has fundamentally changed its strategy in which timid overtures to the United States are made only when Beijing acts up. Given the domination of Marxist-Leninist loyalists in the top leadership elected at the 12th Party Congress in 2016, such change is less likely.

General Lịch’s welcome of a US aircraft carrier’s visit sends a signal of displeasure more than any drastic U-turn in Vietnamese policy regarding China. The Repsol affair left Hanoi with a bruised eye, and the country wants Beijing to know that it is unhappy. Still, like an abused spouse who calls the police after a beating but then refuses to end the relationship, Hanoi will follow its heart and is not about to break away from Beijing soon. 

Tuong Vu is director of Asian Studies and professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

Comments

I'm surprised such an extremist view without support document is published by YaleGlobal! Sure, Communist China and Vietnam have long shared generic ideologies, politics and governance systems...therefore, stay mutually close when things are good - but, Vietnam "follow an old pattern" of "Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens, but in its heart, the country values Beijing’s comradeship more"... is a bit too much unless, the author can cite 1 single example? Accordingly, facts are abused and emotional statements freely, flowed: 1) "Within a week, Vietnam indeed cancelled the contract and agreed to pay millions of dollars to Repsol as compensation". Widely, reported in the world press and Vietnam accounts: the Singapore's Deepsea Metro oil exploration vessel was contracted by Repsol for 3 months (staring early June) and within days, both Vietnam and Repsol reported gas and oil found. Yes, Vietnam was pressured by China all along, but data collection and seafloor mapping continued until early August when Repsol recalled Deepsea Metro - arriving Singapore August 5. Repsol put out statement of stopped operation with no detail on compensated cost and Vietnam indicated it will start up after the typhoon season is over in Nov. 2017. We certainly, will see soon enough and by the way, why isn't China ordering Vietnam to shut down other existing operations by American Exxon-Mobil, India and Russia? 2) "A week later, Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch arrived in Washington, DC, to meet with his counterpart, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. General Lịch, the political commissar of People’s Army of Vietnam – PAVN – was known as a hardline ideologue in Vietnamese politics. Yet Lịch appeared in the American capital with a rare smile and announced that, for the first time in bilateral history, Vietnam accepted a proposal for a port visit by a US aircraft carrier." Name 1 occasion when such a high level, 4-day meeting was arranged in 1 week and/or another incident when VCP's politburo of 19 members met and made that sort of life-changing decision? Perhaps, the author is right: Bill Clinton gave Vietnam 17 years and 6 leadership changes to think over and over and over that aircraft carrier visit! 3) "As the Soviet bloc collapsed and the US-led camp emerged triumphant, Hanoi felt threatened and quickly turned to Beijing, apologizing for the war and proposing a new anti-imperialist alliance. Although Beijing turned down the proposal, bilateral relations were restored in 1991" OK, what has happened to that "new anti-imperialist alliance" when Vietnam quickly established diplomatic relation with that imperialist in 1995? Did China order Vietnam to do that and did China also advise Vietnam to apologize to the US, too? 4) The mother of all fabrications is this "To demonstrate a lesson had been learned, Hanoi leaders changed the constitution to remove anti-China passages. While Vietnam grandly celebrated the wars against France and the United States every year, the 1979 war with China was erased from public memory. State-controlled media were prohibited from publishing negative news about Chinese society, economy or politics, and editors who violated the ban were swiftly punished". Well, I spent over 30 minutes to google and read everything found on Constitutionet and other websites about Vietnam constitution, other constitutions... without having any luck about China mentioned in the constitution (they didn't mention France or the US either). Can Prof. Tuong Vu produce a copy of not just Vietnam, but any country that names another country as their enemy in their constitution?

I am writing to respond to Nguyen Hai's long comment, which I appreciated. I can easily respond to every minor point, but let me just deal with the last part of the comment since this is what Nguyen Hai calls "the mother of fabrications." The evidence I present below, which is obtained simply by googling "hiến pháp Việt nam 1980" (1980 Vietnamese constitution)--I assume that Nguyen Hai can read Vietnamese since the name is a Vietnamese one. It took me just one second to find the official website of Vietnam's Ministry of Justice: http://moj.gov.vn/vbpq/lists/vn%20bn%20php%20lut/view_detail.aspx?itemid....

Below is an excerpt from the 1980 Constitution copied from the website and pasted below (from the beginning through the paragraphs mentioning "imperialist America", to the last paragraph which mentions "expansionist and hegemonic China and their Cambodian lackeys"), so Nguyen Hai can see that I did not fabricate anything:

QUỐC HỘI
Số: Không số
CỘNG HOÀ XÃ HỘI CHỦ NGHĨA VIỆT NAM
Độc lập - Tự do - Hạnh phúc
Hà Nội, ngày 18 tháng 12 năm 1980
HIẾN PHÁP
NƯỚC CỘNG HOÀ XÃ HỘI CHỦ NGHĨA VIỆT NAM NĂM 1980
________________
LỜI NÓI ĐẦU
Trải qua bốn nghìn năm lịch sử, nhân dân Việt Nam lao động cần cù, chiến đấu dũng cảm để dựng nước và giữ nước. Cuộc đấu tranh lâu dài, bền bỉ vì độc lập, tự do đã hun đúc nên truyền thống kiên cường, bất khuất của dân tộc ta.
Từ năm 1930, dưới sự lãnh đạo của Đảng cộng sản Việt Nam do Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh sáng lập và rèn luyện, đi con đường của Cách mạng tháng Mười Nga, nhân dân ta đã lần lượt chiến thắng bọn đế quốc Nhật, Pháp, Mỹ và bè lũ tay sai của chúng, hoàn thành cách mạng dân tộc dân chủ nhân dân, tiến lên làm cách mạng xã hội chủ nghĩa và xây dựng chủ nghĩa xã hội. Nước ta từ một nước thuộc địa và nửa phong kiến trở thành một nước độc lập, thống nhất và xã hội chủ nghĩa, một thành viên của Cộng đồng xã hội chủ nghĩa thế giới.
Năm 1945, sau khi quân đội Liên Xô đánh thắng chủ nghĩa phát xít, nhân dân ta đã làm Cách mạng tháng Tám thành công. Ngày 2 tháng 9 năm 1945, Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh đọc Tuyên ngôn độc lập. Nước Việt Nam dân chủ cộng hoà, Nhà nước công nông đầu tiên ở Đông Nam châu Á, ra đời.
Nhưng thực dân Pháp, được đế quốc Mỹ giúp sức, đã xâm lược nước ta một lần nữa. "Thà hy sinh tất cả, chứ nhất định không chịu mất nước, nhất định không chịu làm nô lệ", nhân dân ta kháng chiến lâu dài chống quân xâm lược, thực hiện cải cách ruộng đất. Chiến thắng vĩ đại Điện Biên Phủ đã kết thúc vẻ vang cuộc kháng chiến chống thực dân Pháp. Năm 1954, Hiệp định Giơ-ne-vơ được ký kết trên cơ sở công nhận độc lập, chủ quyền, thống nhất và toàn vẹn lãnh thổ của nước Việt Nam. Thắng lợi của Cách mạng tháng Tám và của cuộc kháng chiến chống Pháp mở đầu thời kỳ sụp đổ của chủ nghĩa thực dân cũ trên thế giới.
Thay chân thực dân Pháp, đế quốc Mỹ biến miền Nam Việt Nam thành thuộc địa kiểu mới và căn cứ quân sự của Mỹ, âm mưu chia cắt lâu dài nước ta, đặt miền Nam Việt Nam, Lào, Cam-pu-chia vào phòng tuyến phản cách mạng của Mỹ. Để thực hiện kế hoạch đó, đế quốc Mỹ đã tiến hành một cuộc chiến tranh xâm lược cực kỳ man rợ đối với nước ta. Thấm nhuần chân lý "không có gì quý hơn độc lập, tự do", nhân dân ta chiến đấu anh dũng, quyết giải phóng miền Nam, bảo vệ miền Bắc, thống nhất đất nước. Chiến thắng dồn dập của nhân dân Việt Nam, cùng với chiến thắng của nhân dân Lào và nhân dân Cam-pu-chia, đã buộc đế quốc Mỹ phải ký Hiệp định Pa-ri năm 1973 về Việt Nam.
Mùa xuân năm 1975, nhân dân Việt Nam giành được thắng lợi trọn vẹn trong cuộc tổng tiến công và nổi dậy mà đỉnh cao là chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh lịch sử. Sau ba mươi năm chiến đấu gian khổ, miền Nam, thành đồng Tổ quốc, được hoàn toàn giải phóng.
Trong khi toàn dân ta kháng chiến chống Mỹ, cứu nước, cách mạng xã hội chủ nghĩa ở miền Bắc đã đạt được những thành tựu to lớn: thiết lập quan hệ sản xuất xã hội chủ nghĩa, xoá bỏ chế độ người bóc lột người, bước đầu xây dựng cơ sở vật chất - kỹ thuật của chủ nghĩa xã hội, tiến hành cách mạng tư tưởng và văn hoá, vừa xây dựng vừa chiến đấu, làm tròn nghĩa vụ hậu phương lớn của cuộc kháng chiến chống Mỹ đối với miền Nam anh hùng.
Thắng lợi của nhân dân ba nước Đông Dương nói chung và thắng lợi của nhân dân Việt Nam nói riêng trong cuộc kháng chiến chống Mỹ báo hiệu sự phá sản hoàn toàn của chủ nghĩa thực dân mới, góp phần củng cố và mở rộng hệ thống thế giới của chủ nghĩa xã hội, cổ vũ phong trào giải phóng dân tộc, phong trào công nhân và dân chủ, đẩy mạnh thế tiến công của ba dòng thác cách mạng của thời đại.
Sau khi miền Nam hoàn toàn giải phóng, nhân dân ta tiến hành tổng tuyển cử tự do trong cả nước, thực hiện thống nhất Tổ quốc. Tháng 7 năm 1976, nước ta lấy tên là Cộng hoà xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam.
Vừa trải qua ba mươi năm chiến tranh giải phóng, đồng bào ta thiết tha mong muốn có hoà bình để xây dựng Tổ quốc, nhưng lại phải đương đầu với bọn bá quyền Trung Quốc xâm lược cùng bè lũ tay sai của chúng ở Cam-pu-chia. Phát huy truyền thống vẻ vang của dân tộc, quân và dân ta đã giành được thắng lợi oanh liệt trong hai cuộc chiến tranh bảo vệ Tổ quốc chống bọn phản động Cam-pu-chia ở biên giới Tây Nam và chống bọn bá quyền Trung Quốc ở biên giới phía Bắc, bảo vệ độc lập, chủ quyền, thống nhất và toàn vẹn lãnh thổ của mình."

je souhaite signaler à l'auteur de l'article que, contrairement à ses dires, c'est uniquement parce que le général Giap a rompu avec les généraux chinois sur leur tactique et stratégie militaire qu'il a pu remporter la victoire à Dien Bien Phu. Si il avait continuer d'appliquer la tactique de la vague ,le piège tendu par l'Etat-Major français se serait refermé sur ses troupes.
Je vous signale, à ce égard, mon article dans le dernier numéro de la Revue " La Marche de L'Histoie" ainsi que mon livre : " Sorties de guerre.Vietnam,Laos,Cambodge.1975-2012" publié aux Editions " Les Indes savantes"; Cordialement

Google translation:
I wish to point out to the author of the article that it is only because General Giap broke with the Chinese generals on their tactics and military strategy that he was able to win the victory at Dien Bien Phu. If he had continued to apply the tactics of the wave, the trap set by the French General Staff would have closed on his troops. In this regard, I would like to point out my article in the last issue of the journal La Marche de L'Histoie, as well as my book "Sorties de guerre.Vietnam, Laos, Cambodge.1975-2012" published by Les Editions Les Indes learned." Cordially

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