By Rachel Brown
The streets of the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park on a Saturday morning in mid-May are eerily quiet, and only a few uniformed guards linger outside factory gates. But echoes of the protesters’ anger resound in the signs that hang outside every gate. Some banners are nothing more than simple red graffiti on white sheets proclaiming, “I love Vietnam” while others are professionally printed with messages ranging from “Japanese Companies. Long Live Vietnam!” to “We are 100% Capital from Thailand.” Flags wave from more than a dozen countries spanning the globe from Norway to Malaysia, but a Vietnamese flag always accompanies them as a symbol of solidarity. In Thuan An district, in the southern Vietnamese province of Binh Duong, factory owners desperately want to prove that they are anything but Chinese.
The perils of association with China appear in the stripped façade of the “Vision International Co. Ltd” factory. Days before, protesters tore patches of golden lettering away, leaving the nonsensical jumble “VIIO NTERNATIONAL C. LD.” Unlike in the still legible English name, in the Chinese translation not a single character was spared. In place of the Chinese characters, two spray-painted signs wave and state in Vietnamese “the Paracels (Hoang Sa) and Spratlys (Truong Sa) belong to Vietnam” and “Vision supports Vietnam. Demolish China.” Ironically, the vandalized factory is actually owned by the Fu Sheng Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of golf club heads and industrial air compressors, which is based not in Mainland China but in Taiwan. The mere presence of Chinese characters on the plaque outside was enough to earn the Vietnamese protesters’ suspicion and wrath.
Across Southeast Asia, tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea such as who rightfully controls the Paracels and the Spratlys, island groups off the east coast of Vietnam, have been mounting due to a potent combination of nationalism, a desire for economic resources, and the growing strength of the Chinese military. The scene at the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park demonstrates how simmering animosities can erupt into public expressions of frustration when China provokes smaller states. After the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation placed a $1 billion oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981, off the coast of Vietnam this May, anger rose among Vietnamese citizens. The Vietnamese government, which rarely permits expressions of dissent, even allowed the initial non-violent protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi.
The timing of China’s decision to send the oil rig out for exploration “was not totally a surprise,” said Professor Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, vice dean of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV). The deployment of the rig came shortly after President Obama visited Southeast Asia in April 2014. Both political commentators and Vietnamese students speculated that China sought to test the strength of the heightened American commitment to the region. China likely also saw an opportunity to seize a moment when Russia’s actions in Crimea had distracted the United States from Asia. Professor Nguyen added that, by observing Russia, “China can learn the lesson. They can stand the blame for a certain time.” Members of the international community may be “angry but then they forget and the new status quo has been made. And that’s it. That’s all they need.”
This “new status quo” envisioned by China does not sit easy with much of the Vietnamese population. One editorial published in the Vietnam News said that the “Vietnamese people are angry. The nation is angry. We are telling the world that we are angry. We have every right to be angry.” This anger quickly curdled from rhetoric into a more violent form as acrid smoke billowed from attacked factories.
Nearly 20,000 factory workers in the province of Binh Duong poured into the streets on May 13th and May 14th, 2014. Protesters set three factories within the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park on fire, and across the country an estimated 351 factories were vandalized or entirely destroyed. Meanwhile young Vietnamese across the country launched a digital protest as they set their Facebook profile pictures to an image of the Vietnamese flag superimposed with the phrase “protect the Paracels and Spratlys.”
Various nations fiercely contest ownership of these island groups. Skirmishes between the Vietnamese and Chinese navies occurred over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in 1974 and 1988. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim parts of the Paracels, which lie further to the north. The constellation of claims in the Spratlys, which lie further to the south, is even more complex, with Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all involved.
These conflicting claims arise largely from China’s assertion of sovereignty over a huge swath of the South China Sea, encircled on a map by the “nine-dash line.” Nations desire access to the South China Sea because of both the extensive natural resources believed to lie deep below its surface, and the trillions of dollars of trade that pass on ships above its surface. Nearly half of the world’s merchant fleet and 20 percent of oil shipped by sea pass through the South China Sea. Claimant nations are eager to prove their rights to even the smallest features in the South China Sea in order to establish exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles from a coastline and grant access to the
As China grows more powerful both economically and militarily, it has taken an increasingly strong position on its historical rights to these waters. Professor Nguyen said that Vietnam perceives China as desiring “to become the naval power in the world. And in order to become the naval power they need to settle something around them first.”
China’s growing naval power has exacerbated underlying tensions in the Sino-Vietnamese relationship. For 2,000 years, China has loomed over Vietnam as a powerful neighbor and sometimes colonizer. As one student at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City said, “when it comes to China, everything else is so small.” During the first millennia A.D., China controlled northern Vietnam and many in Vietnam argue that China still views its southern neighbor as a tributary state. The pattern of smaller Vietnam struggling against enormous China has reoccurred throughout history, appearing not just today in college students’ Facebook profile pictures, but also in cultural performances, such as the water puppet shows frequented by tourists. These often depict the story of the successful defeat of the Chinese by the Vietnamese king Le Loi in the 1400s. As historic animosities reemerge, the Vietnamese government faces a difficult choice between the desire to project strength towards China to satisfy certain segments of the population, and the need to manage the critical economic and political relationship with China. China and Vietnam are ideological siblings, as both states are led by Communist parties but have economies that operate on capitalist principles. These similarities also affect Sino-Vietnam ties. Professor Nguyen said that the government must “think carefully about how to satisfy the demand from Vietnamese people,” while operating within the constraint of what they can do and “how to serve the best interest of the country.”
Members of the business community expressed concern that the protests were not in Vietnam’s best interest, as they might spook tourists and investors from coming to Vietnam. Vu Tu Thanh, the managing regional director for the US-ASEAN Business Council, said that some factory workers criticized the protesters and complained that they “smashed our rice pot,” in terms of employment opportunities. Tourism from Mainland China fell by approximately 30 percent the month after the protests, although Chinese tourists in Hanoi told the Globalist that everyone had been friendly to them in their travels, and they only desired peace.
Vietnam’s economic dependence on China, the nation’s largest trading partner and source of tourists, has tempered defiant feelings among some Vietnamese, leading instead to resignation. “China is what it is, there’s only so much you can do,” Mr. Vu said. Similarly, a group of students at Vietnam National University explained that, while they were unhappy with the situation, there was little they could change. “I don’t see any other way because we are just a small state and we have [to] live with China for a very long time in the future,” one student said. Vietnam, he noted, was stuck in a “classic case of the small state-large state model” with China in a dominant position both economically and militarily. The theoretical power dynamics this student read about in his international relations textbooks were now playing out in his home country.
This sense of resignation underlies the more overt expressions of national pride. While Vietnamese citizens can express their frustrations with China rhetorically, the government has few options to fight for its claims more formally. Unlike the Philippines, a treaty ally of the U.S., “only Vietnam stands alone without any allies, without any defense treaty,” Professor Nguyen said. “So it has become a vulnerable point and the easiest point for China to attack to gain control.” Also unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has not yet employed a legal strategy to address the South China Sea disputes through international arbitration. The adoption of such an approach by Vietnam would require careful consideration of the costs, both in legal fees and in the political capital that might be lost with China. The power imbalance between Vietnam and China might even limit the potential for the two nations to jointly develop oil and gas resources. Researcher Nguyen Thu Phuong at Vietnam National University said that joint exploration projects were “absolutely not a good choice to protect our sovereignty in the disputed waters” because China “would gradually swallow the joint company.”
Even the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), once considered the best hope for small and medium-sized nations to stand up to China, has limited effectiveness. The members of ASEAN “only have the strength if we stay together,” explained Professor Nguyen of the DAV. Staying together has proven difficult, as only four out of the ten member states actually have territorial claims in the South China Sea. Many states without direct claims, such as Laos and Cambodia, rely on China heavily for investment and are reluctant to take an aggressive stance. At the 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia, the group’s foreign ministers could not even agree to the text of a statement on the South China Sea. That incident taught ASEAN a valuable lesson said Professor Nguyen. “This year we have a statement, a stand-alone statement on the South China Sea,” she explained. “But then the substantial issue—that different issues can easily be divided by China—is still there.”
This discord has hampered efforts to reach a Code of Conduct between ASEAN nations and China over how to manage or resolve the territorial disputes. Skepticism of the Obama Administration’s commitment to Southeast Asian nations and the “Pivot to Asia” also remains. “The countries here [are] always looking for the evidence of the actual pivot,” Professor Nguyen said. If another major power does not remain in the region for balance, the prospects for China’s regional hegemony grow ever more likely.
Limited avenues to address the disputes leave members of both the Vietnamese public and government with little choice but to express defiance while simultaneously resigning themselves to the realities of the situation. Vietnam has strengthened its relationships with large powers such as the U.S. and Russia, from whom it purchased six submarines, but neither nation has the geographic proximity or regional economic influence of China. Despite the outpourings of nationalism at the factory protests this spring, Vietnam has little desire or recourse to “demolish China”—or even stop changes in the status quo.
Rachel Brown ‘15 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Saybrook College. Contact her at email@example.com.