The Vietnamese anti-China protests that last week morphed into attacks on foreign companies have revealed how a reactive nationalism in government and wider society risks undermining Vietnam’s attempts to face up to its giant neighbour.
While analysts say Vietnam has a good case to make to the world against China’s behaviour in the dispute over the Paracel Islands, its lack of international alliances leaves it poorly placed to take on a vast country on whom it relies economically.
“For Vietnam, it amounts to a full-blown crisis,” said Jonathan London, a professor in the Department of Asian and International studies at the City University of Hong Kong. “Hanoi is in a position that calls into question its whole strategic outlook.”
China has evacuated thousands of its citizens from Vietnam after mobs ransacked hundreds of foreign companies, leaving at least two people dead. The riots were the culmination of protests that erupted after China deployed an oil rig near the Paracels, which are controlled by Beijing but claimed by Hanoi.
The spat is the latest episode in a broader rise in maritime tensions between China and its neighbours. Over the past few years, Beijing has been more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, in what many see as an effort to confront the US regional presence and Washington’s declared “pivot” to Asia.
The eruption of the longstanding but mostly simmering dispute over the Paracels surprised analysts, given that relations had improved since Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, visited Hanoi last year.
Relations between the communist governments in Beijing and Hanoi have also generally recovered from a brief 1979 border war that is still a source of resentment in Vietnam.
Hanoi exploited that popular feeling last week by allowing extensive media coverage and rare public protests against China. But the tactic backfired as motorcycle mobs smashed, burnt and looted their way across the country’s flagship industrial parks.
Police swarmed main city centres on Sunday to stop further protests that could have triggered more violence – or acted as a platform for public frustration over problems ranging from the sluggish economy to official corruption.
Another difficulty facing Hanoi has been its reliance on Chinese products, from consumer goods to power. Vietnam imports electricity from its neighbour and runs a trade deficit estimated at more than $20bn.
Vietnam is also hampered by a lack of strong links with western powers. While Hanoi has edged closer to the US in recent years, its relationship with Washington is still soured by memories of the Vietnam war and by the Communist party’s authoritarianism in the since reunified country.
One former US official said he had “never seen them work the town like this”, referring to Vietnamese officials trying to drum up support in Washington. But few experts expect this to result in a big shift, given disagreements within the Communist party over how much to lean towards the west.
“The problems Hanoi faces with Beijing over the South China Sea claims could nudge Vietnam toward common cause with the US,” said Tan See Seng, an Asean expert at the
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “But it wouldn’t be a full embrace at the expense of its other interests with China.”
Li Mingjiang, a China-Vietnam expert also at the S. Rajaratnam School, said Beijing and Hanoi were seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The conflict between Vietnam’s vulnerability and its desire to win concessions from China is one that may be played out across southeast Asia as Beijing presses its maritime claims. As Carl Thayer, an Australia-based expert on Vietnam, puts it: “The balancing act is: how do you stand up just enough to China?”
“对越南而言，这已经成为一场全面危机，”香港城市大学(City University of Hong Kong)亚洲及国际学系教授乔纳森?伦敦(Jonathan London)表示，“河内方面所处的境地使它的整个战略前景蒙上了疑云。”
“越南在南中国海主权纠纷中所面临的问题，可能推动越南与美国结成统一战线，”新加坡南洋理工大学拉贾拉南国际问题研究院(S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies)东盟问题专家陈思诚(Tan See Seng)表示，“但它不会牺牲与中国的其他利益而全面拥抱美国。”