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Anti-China Protests in Vietnam Despite Vietnam’s general willingness to crack down on anti-China protests that may jeopardize relations and risk conflict, 131 a series of developments in the South China Sea aroused Vietnamese alarm in 2007, including China’s detention of Vietnamese fishing boats near the Spratlys in April and naval exercises in the Paracels in November. 132 For Vietnamese nationalists, the final straw was China’s creation of a new administrative region, Sansha, whose jurisdiction would include the Paracel and Spratly Islands. 133 On December 9, 2007, a few hundred Vietnamese gathered near the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. “I don’t think the government has ever allowed such protests in the past,” said Vu Mao, former chairman of the national assembly’s external relations committee. 134 Vietnamese netizens circulated plans to protest the following weekend, but the second round of protests met with Vietnam repressed anti-China protests after nine Vietnamese fishermen were killed by Chinese patrols in the Tonkin Gulf in 2005. Alexander Vuving, “Strategy and Evolution of Vietnam’s China Policy: A Changing Mixture of Pathways,” Asian Survey 46, no. 6 (November/December 2006): 819.
“Disputes in the South China Sea,” The Economist, 13 December 2007. See also Thayer, “The Structure of Vietnam-China Relations,” 20.
China consolidated control over the Paracels in 1974 after defeating Vietnam in a series of naval clashes. John W. Garver, “China’s Push through the South China Sea: The Interaction of Bureaucratic and National
Interests,” The China Quarterly no. 132 (December 1992):.1012; M. Taylor Fravel, “Power Shifts and Escalation:
Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes,” International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007/08): 44-83.
Quoted in Roger Mitton, “For Hanoi, protests are okay - up to a point,” Straits Times, 13 March 2008.
heavy police presence. Authorities prevented hundreds of protesters from reaching the Chinese consulate and embassy in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and arrested several demonstrators. 135 Fear of Chinese retaliation and the destabilizing effects of anti-China protests appear to have influenced the government’s decision to curtail them. 136 The participation of democratic activists fed government concerns that anti-China rallies might turn against the ruling Communist Party. As one official told reporters: “It’s alright some bloggers have recently showed their patriotism, posting opinions about the Paracels-Spratly archipelagos on their weblogs. But some have sparked protest, causing public disorder and affecting the country’s foreign affairs.” 137 According to Le Quoc Quan, a Vietnamese lawyer who had been imprisoned for alleged “activities to overthrow the People’s government,” 138 some students and I went to protest against China over the three islands....Even while shouting against Sansha, I still found something lacking.....Instead of choosing dictatorship, please choose democracy. Instead of choosing Communist ideology, please choose Vietnamese nationalism. 139 “Vietnamese stage second anti-China rally over disputed islands,” Agence France Presse, 16,December 2007.
Alexander Vuving, “Vietnam: Arriving in the World—and at a Crossroads,” Southeast Asian Affairs 2008 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 389.
“Vietnam must regulate blogs, say officials,” Agence France Presse, 25 December 2007.
“Free Le Quoc Quan,” The New York Sun, 20 April 2007; “Vietnam dissidents use technology to stay ahead,” The Globe and Mail, 6 December 2007.
“Tam Sa và 8 Chữ Cho Việt nam,” [Eight letters to gain ‘position’ and ‘power’] 21 December 2007, http://lequocquan.blogspot.com/2007/12/tam-sa-v-8-ch-cho-vit-nam.html.
Over the next several months, Vietnam kept a lid on anti-China sentiment. One newspaper was suspended for supporting the “pure patriotism” of anti-China protesters in 2007. 140 When the Olympic torch passed through Hanoi, authorities arrested well-known blogger Dieu Cay for allegedly organizing anti-Chinese protests and two protesters for unfurling a banner depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs. 141 Despite the government’s efforts, anti-China sentiment continued to grow, sparked by a 2009 controversy over Chinese bauxite investments in the Vietnamese central highlands. With opposition to the project including retired war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap and several National Assembly representatives, the government promised regular reviews of the project and tightened requirements on Chinese workers. 142 Despite these concessions, the government continued to crack down on anti-China sentiment. In September 2009, two bloggers and a journalist were arrested and subsequently released for promoting a campaign to give away Tshirts that said “Stop bauxite. No China. The Spratlys and Paracels belong to Vietnam.” 143 After Chinese patrol ships cut the cables of two Vietnamese survey ships in 2011, protesters took to the streets for several consecutive weekends between June and August 2011.
The Vietnamese government’s lenience toward nationalist protests marked a distinct change “Bauxite Bashers,” The Economist, 23 April 2009.
“Vietnam’s bloggers face government crackdown,” Time.com, 30 December 2008; “Vietnam Arrests Blogger for Reporting Torch Protests,” Bangkok Post, 28 April 2008; “Vietnam detains anti-China activists before torch relay,” Agence France Presse, 28 April 2008.
Edward Wong, “China’s export of labor faces scorn,” New York Times, 20 December 2009;
VietNamNet Bridge, “Bauxite mining in Central Highlands gets Politburo go-ahead,” 26 April 2009, http://english.vietnamnet.vn/politics/2009/04/844234/.
John Ruwitch, “Vietnam bloggers arrested over China shirt protest,” Reuters, 5 September 2009.
from its prior efforts to tamp down anti-China sentiment. For Vietnam, the incidents reflected a pattern of increasing Chinese commercial and military activity in the South China Sea, leading Hanoi to condemn the “systematic acts by the Chinese side [that] aim at disputing an undisputed area.” 144 The Vietnamese government sought to halt this “escalation of China’s efforts to exercise and enforce its maritime rights,” 145 and allowing protests was a way to signal resolve despite Vietnam’s relative weakness. Vietnamese leaders may have also been emboldened by the belief that international actors—particularly the United States—would be willing to come to Vietnam’s assistance, given U.S. actions in 2010, including Secretary Clinton’s declaration of a U.S. “national interest” in the South China Sea. 146 Former government official Tran Cong Truc stressed that Vietnam should “help world opinion understand that if China’s wrongdoings are not prevented, they will keep escalating and being more aggressive, directly affecting the interests of countries in the region, not only Vietnam’s.” 147 The Vietnamese government was initially loath to crack down, partly hoping that antiChina protests would communicate the extent of public outrage in Vietnam, and partly afraid of “Regular Press Briefing by MOFA’s Spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga on June 9th, 2011,” http://www.mofa.gov.vn/en/tt_baochi/pbnfn/ns110610145220#HArtqh2fGS9R; and John Ruwitch, “Vietnam allows second anti-China protest in Hanoi,” Reuters, 12 June 2011.
Fravel, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea,” 13.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum,” 23 July 2010, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/07/145095.htm.
“Binh Minh 02 ship case: enough evidences to sue China!” VietNamNet Bridge, 2 June 2011, http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/print/politics/9022/binh-minh-02-ship-case--enough-evidences-to-sue-chinahtml.
appearing “anti-patriotic.” 148 Two protesters attributed the government’s forbearance to the changed diplomatic context. “This time, the Vietnam’s state wanted to show its attitude toward China through the protests. The Vietnam government did not want the marches to take place, but circumstances forced it to do so,” said one protester. The second agreed: “I think the authorities have eased up with the current protests. I am not surprised because this is a very special case....When the people protest peacefully, it can be beneficial for the authorities in coping with China’s expansion.” 149 Former president and retired general Le Duc Anh was quoted in the Vietnamese press as saying: “We have to trust our people to persistently struggle publicly.
Making public information is the way to show agreement and the people’s power.” 150 As protests continued, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son traveled to Beijing, where he and State Councilor Dai Bingguo issued a joint statement declaring “the need to steer public opinions along the correct direction, avoiding comments and deeds that harm the friendship and trust of the two countries.” 151 Both sides made symbolic concessions on conditions for steps toward a China-ASEAN code of conduct for the South China Sea. 152 Interview with a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Official, Hanoi, 8 August 2011.
“Giới trẻ Việt Nam và các cuộc biểu tình chống Trung Quốc,” [Vietnamese youth and the protests against China] VOA Vietnamese, 1 July 2011, http://www.voanews.com/vietnamese/news/vietnamese-youth-andanti-china-protests-part1-124786154.html.
VietnamNet, “Top ranking general: If we frighten, we will lose sovereignty,” 14 June 2011, http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/special-report/9441/top-ranking-general--if-we-frighten--we-will-losesovereignty.html.
“Vietnam-China Joint Press Release,” Communist Party of Vietnam Online Newspaper, 26 June 2011;
“Nations agree on talks to solve sea dispute,” China Daily.com, 27 June 2011.
M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 33, no. 3 (2011): 17.
Although a few hundred protesters managed to gather for two more weekends in Vietnam, 153 Vietnamese authorities acted more decisively to arrest and disperse protesters on July 10 and 17. 154 Days later, China and ASEAN compromised on a set of guidelines for implementing a code of conduct in the South China Sea. 155 ASEAN agreed to “dialogue and consultations” in lieu of an explicit statement that members would consult before meeting with China. 156 In August, the Foreign Ministry announced that working-level negotiations between China and Vietnam had reached a preliminary consensus on principles, including “not take any action that may broaden and complicate disputes, and not to use force or threaten to use force in the process of dispute resolution.” 157 The agreement involved mutual concessions—“to solve bilaterally those issues which are solely related to Vietnam and China while those issues related to other parties should be put into discussion among concerned parties.” 158 Despite this diplomatic breakthrough, demonstrations gained new life after Vietnam announced the results of an investigation sparked by a YouTube video of a protester being kicked in the face by a plainclothes officer. Although no evidence of police brutality was “Anti-China demo in Vietnam despite clampdown,” Agence France Presse, 3 July 2011.
“Police again break up anti-China demo in Vietnam,” Agence France Presse, 17 July 2011; BBC Vietnamese, 21 July 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/07/110721_protesters_appeal.shtml.
“New guidelines on South China Sea give green light for China-ASEAN cooperation,” Xinhua News Agency, 22 July 2011.
Patrick Cronin, ed., Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea (Washington: Center for a New American Security, January 2012).
Vietnam Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Statement, 3 August 2011, http://www.mofa.gov.vn/en/tt_baochi/pbnfn/ns110805164907#tzyrD3ltcmBE.