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Vietnam in the Shadow of China
The Chinese oil rig at the heart of the maritime dispute between China and Vietnam is expected to depart soon from its contentious position near the Paracel Islands. China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which operates the oil rig, deployed HD-981 to disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam in May as part of a resource exploration mission.
Relations between the two countries soon deteriorated following the placement of the oil rig. An outbreak of riots in Vietnam killed two Chinese workers and the resulted in the destruction of Taiwanese and South Korean factories. Chinese Coast Guard and Vietnamese vessels repeatedly clashed around the oil rig.
HD-981 was not expected to remain in place for long with CNOOC announcing early on that the oil rig’s mission would conclude in mid-August. However, the early departure could suggest an attempt by China to amend relations. According to CNOOC, the removal is due to its having detected signs of oil and gas and returning home for assessment. Alternatively, concerns from China that the dispute might invite the United States and European Union to send naval vessels to the area as observers may have encouraged Beijing to pull back.
Whatever the reasons, the departure of HD-981 may, at least for the time being, reduce tensions between the two neighbors. However remote the possibility of an open conflict between China and Vietnam might have been, the potential for violence remained a concern if the dispute was allowed to persist.
In his recent interview on China and the military of Vietnam with The New York Times, Lyle Goldstein, a professor with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, does not mince words in responding to this simple question: Can Vietnam compete militarily with China?
Despite upgrades and improvements to Vietnam’s military, Vietnam remains at a disadvantage in any potential sea and/or air conflict due to a lack of experience and training. History favors Vietnam when fighting is confined to the ground. However, the mere size of China and modern upgrades to its military suggest that this advantage is no longer a given.
Any military conflict would favor China, but then neither side possesses an appetite for such conflict, albeit for different reasons. Vietnam has no desire to bring war and the destruction that follows to its doorstep and China has no desire to give the United States reason to intervene any more than it has in the region. China’s irritation at America’s pivot to Asia-Pacific is not helped if war breaks out.
At the core of this spat was not only the presence of HD-981 near the Paracels, claimed by China and Vietnam, and within disputed waters, but also the perception of ordinary Vietnamese of being bullied by their much larger neighbor. For many Vietnamese, China’s actions could not be ignored.
Vietnam endured nearly a thousand years of Chinese rule. Tellingly, this period is often referred to as China’s domination of Vietnam and was marked by revolts by revered heroes such as the two Trưng Sisters in AD 40 and Lê Lợi in 1428. Despite the cultural imprint left on Vietnam by China (although French colonialism from the 19th to 20th century saw the adoption of the Latin alphabet over Chinese calligraphy), these two countries have rarely seen eye-to-eye.
For all of China’s assistance to Communist-led North Vietnam during its war against the United States and South Vietnam, border and maritime skirmishes continue between Vietnam and China. The most violent of these skirmishes was known as the Sino–Vietnamese War, occurring on February 17, 1979 only a month after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge.
Both sides suffered heavy casualties but claimed victory in the war that barely lasted a month, although Vietnam remained in Cambodia until 1989.
It would have been one thing for another country to place their oil rig near the coast of Vietnam, but for that country to be China merely affirmed the suspicions of some Vietnamese who believe Beijing has never let go of their country. These suspicions are made worse by the Vietnamese people’s distrust of their government, regarding it as corrupt and potentially “selling out” Vietnam to China, to say nothing of gross human rights violations.
Vietnamese nationals and those living abroad cherish the independence of their home nation. It is a point of pride that a country as small as Vietnam has remained independent in the face of repeated attempts of colonization. But for overseas Vietnamese, and perhaps equally for many Vietnamese nationals, Vietnam’s Communist leaders have proven unfit to govern the country.
If nothing else, the oil rig incident may inspire Vietnamese private citizens and certain public officials to change the way in which the country has operated, to find new ways for Vietnam to assert itself before China and on the world stage.
While the removal of HD-981 may de-escalate the situation around the Paracels, Vietnam and China will continue to butt heads over the same and similar maritime disputes. If indeed HD-981 found signs of oil and gas, it is unlikely that Beijing would turn a blind eye to this discovery and could return to the area in due time.
The role, then, for Vietnam’s leaders is how best to respond to such a confrontation, to walk that most delicate line of asserting Vietnamese independence and preserving territorial integrity, while at the same time maintaining delicate relations with its much more powerful neighbor.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.