May 21, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Nationalist Fervor in China and Vietnam Escalates Tensions

• In the latest turn of events surrounding China’s and Vietnam’s dispute over territory in the South China Sea, China has evacuated thousands of Chinese who live and work in Vietnam, following anti-Chinese protests that led to casualties of Chinese citizens
• While this territorial dispute is not a new phenomenon, the most recent flair-up is a result of China’s placement of an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and thereby claiming that continental shelf as its own
• Vietnam and China both see this area as sovereign land, making it quite clear that neither side plans to back down any time soon.


China and its neighbors are frequently at odds over competing claims to swathes of territory in the South and East China Seas. As China becomes increasingly assertive in laying claim to disputed territories, tensions with its neighbors now increasingly erupt into violent protests, as they have in Vietnam over the past two weeks, prompting China to evacuate thousands of citizens from the country.

In both China and Vietnam, leadership has promoted aggressive nationalism as a means to unify the country, consolidate domestic support, and underpin foreign policy decision-making. As a result, flare-ups between the neighboring countries over tiny but strategic slices of territory in the South China Sea, have escalated tensions between the two, igniting threads of nationalist fervor, and threatening to invite full-out conflict.

In Vietnam, protests against the Chinese government’s decision to place an oil rig in the South China Sea, in an area both countries claim as sovereign territory, were initially permitted by the Vietnamese government before they injured over 100. Though official figures list two deaths, the company that employed the Chinese workers stated four of its employees died. Now, as police in Vietnam attempt to reign in the violence, the origins of the fierce anti-Chinese sentiment that led to an eruption of violence over a single oil rig are being called into question.

What makes this recent protest in Vietnam so significant is that it is quite similar to the anti-Japanese protests that took place in China in 2012 in response to the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which China and Japan both claim sovereignty over. In each case, the Chinese and Vietnamese governments allowed, or at least looked the other way, as the protests rapidly got out of control, most likely to deflect public anger away from domestic problems. But as the loss of life in Vietnam demonstrates, nationalism is a tricky beast that can bite the hand that feeds it.

It is not surprising that nationalism is at the forefront of this territorial dispute. Both China and Vietnam have so strongly tied the sovereignty of the Paracel Islands—which China calls Xisha and Vietnam refers to as Hoang Sa—into their national narratives, that to be seen as backing down would be tantamount to political suicide. A look at what the domestic populations of both countries have been saying is instructive. Vietnamese war veterans have been quoted as saying they were ready to die to protect their nation, and in this case from China’s perceived encroachment onto Vietnam’s sovereign territory. On the opposite side, General Fang Fenghui, who serves as the chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, referred to the Chinese people’s inability to accept Vietnam’s provocations against the oil rig. With such rhetoric circulating, it is not surprising that the Chinese and Vietnamese governments would take these nationalistic sentiments into consideration when formulating foreign policy.

These days, this type of behavior has come to be expected from China’s government. In 2012, after Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands led to violent protests in China, there was a widespread outcry that the Chinese government had given anti-Japanese protests leeway, if not outright support. It was thought that given the upcoming leadership transition and, at the time, the ongoing corruption case of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, Japan provided a welcome scapegoat during a time of domestic uncertainty. However, the Chinese government did not allow the protests to get completely out of hand as Japanese factories were attacked and Japanese citizens were threatened. It is clear that even though the protests appeared to benefit the Chinese government’s aims, in the end the ultra-nationalist sentiments had to be held in check before any real damage could be done.

The Vietnamese government has similarly appeared to benefit from the recent anti-Chinese protests on its own soil. Like China, Vietnam’s authoritarian government routinely cracks down on protesters and journalists as a means to curb movements that could challenge its authority. But when those protests can be turned against an outside provocateur such as China, it seems that leniency is the best policy. In a rare occurrence, the government allowed protesters to stage a rally outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and broadcast the protests on state television. The last time such protests were sanctioned was in 2011, when a Chinese vessel cut the survey cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. The protests appeared to the Vietnamese government as a winning formula.

However, like the Chinese government, the Vietnamese government soon realized that this protest would have to be dissolved. In the wake of the deadly outcome, Prime Minister Nguyen ordered all “illegal protests” to cease, while a General in the Ministry of Public Security condemned the protesters’ actions as “seriously undermin[ing] the country’s image.”  But in this instance it was too little too late; lives were lost and the damage had been done. China has suspended bilateral exchanges with Vietnam, a clear signal that while nationalism might be popular at home in the short term it could have dire consequences for the Vietnamese government in the long term. Vietnam might look to China as an economic model, but it should think twice about following a similar nationalistic model. As both countries are learning, one never knows when it might turn around and bite the hand that feeds it.      .

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