By Jonathan D. London
Internationally, the rhythms of Vietnam’s political calendar are not frequently discussed. And yet in the context of escalating regional tensions and of fragile efforts to address them, it is worth noting that January, February, and March of each year are months in which Vietnamese political passions toward China burn especially hot. An appreciation of the reasons for this provides insights into Vietnamese perspectives on China’s current assertive tilt and the complexities Hanoi faces in coping with it.
Relations between Vietnam and China stretch back thousands of years and have had rough patches stretching across centuries. Yet current tensions between the two countries’ states have strikingly recent origins. In the context of Beijing’s creeping efforts to enforce its outsized claims in the South China Sea – the Vietnamese call it the East Sea — three days on the Vietnamese calendar stand out.
The first is January 19. On this day in 1974 Chinese forces launched an assault and seizure of key islands in the Paracel chain, over which Vietnam had demonstrated sovereignty for centuries, up through the colonial and post-colonial periods. Incensed by Beijing’s acts, the dependence of North Vietnam’s Communist Party on China in the war against the United States made constraint the only option. Today, the 74 young South Vietnamese soldiers who perished in the defense of the islands are hailed as national heroes across northern and southern Vietnam, but not officially. Wisely or not, and to the ire of many Vietnamese, Hanoi has mostly repressed public commemorations.
Next comes 17 February. On this day in 1979 Beijing launched its full-scale if ill-fated invasion of northern Vietnam. Unfolding amid a U.S.-China detente, Beijing’s intent was on “teaching Vietnam a lesson” for Hanoi’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia, which removed the brutal Beijing-backed regime of Pol Pot from power. A failure in military terms, China’s invasion resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese.
Given Washington’s current concern over China’s military expansion, it is worth remembering that Beijing’s invasion was an attempt to signal its readiness to ally with the United States against Vietnam and a perceived Soviet threat. Indeed, many analysts trace the origins of China’s current military build up to lingering paranoia associated with the abject failure of its adventures in Vietnam.
In Vietnam itself, Beijing’s 1979 invasion is remembered, but again unofficially. This year, untold thousands of Vietnamese took to wearing pins and displaying Facebook profile pictures bearing the image of the Rose Myrtle flower, which is native to the region where tens of thousands of Vietnamese perished.
Finally we come to the current week and the date of March 14. It was on this day in 1988 that Beijing launched its most recent bid to seize islands in the Spratly chain, including islands over which Vietnam had demonstrated clear historical sovereignty. Chinese troops opened fired on their “socialist brothers,” in a decidedly vicious attack. To date, Hanoi’s official death toll from the incident remains set at 64, though some in Hanoi claim the actual figure was closer to 200.
On that day, first-hand accounts recall, Chinese forces encircled dozens of Vietnamese sailors set adrift from their sunken ship, denying them exit, machine gunning them, and letting them drown. These wounds are not forgotten in Hanoi, but they are not given voice. Nor typically is anger about Beijing’s maritime conduct, including the innumerable beatings and ransomed detentions of fishermen since 1988.
Hanoi’s record of official silence in one of the world’s most fiercely independent countries is remarkable in its own right. It is also consistent with an ancient but deeply controversial set of assumptions regarding the best way of coping with China. According to this perspective, while Vietnam will fiercely defend its independence and sovereignty, it is necessary to be silent, to pay respects to Beijing, and to assume the conduct of a “little brother,” or even a vassal state.
Unsurprisingly, this approach is despised among legions of Vietnamese worldwide. More importantly for Hanoi, it is an approach that may now have outlived its utility.
Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian & International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (Palgrave MacMillan 2014). Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.