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«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»

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officially found, 159 many protesters interpreted the suspension of officials involved as a green light, and demonstrations in Hanoi resumed. 160 Yet mainstream and even liberal Chinese media speculated that ostensibly anti-China protests were actually led by anti-government elements trying to undermine the Vietnamese regime. “Some people think that the Vietnamese government is actually most afraid that protesters will turn against the government, since most previous anti-China demonstrations were organized by anti-government organizations in Vietnam,” noted Caijing. 161 “When the dispute in South China Sea gradually subsided, the antiChina demonstrations in Vietnam did not stop,” said Vietnam expert Chen Minling, who asserted: “They are actually the accomplices (bangxiong) of external forces trying to subvert the Vietnamese regime.” 162 The Vietnamese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Hanoi Moi, blamed the anti-China protests on “anti-state forces,” saying that “their conspiracy and intention has been to VNA news agency, BBC Asia Pacific, 3 August 2011; BBC Vietnamese, 2 August 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/08/110802_police_disciplined.shtml; BBC Vietnamese, 8 August 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/08/110807_hanoi_protest.shtml.

John Ruwitch, “New Hanoi anti-China rally tests tolerance of protests,” Reuters, 7 August 2011;

interview with a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Official, Hanoi, 8 August 2011.

“Yuenan Shizhou Baofa Jiuci Fanhua Youxing, Duo Wei Fan Zhengfu Renshi Zuzhi”[Nine anti-China protests happen in Vietnam in ten days, most of them organized by anti-government people], Caijing, 8 August 2011, http://www.caijing.com.cn/2011-08-08/110802694.html.

“Shei Zai Cedong Yuenan Fanhua Youxing?” [Who is instigating the anti-China protests in Vietnam?], Shijie Xinwenbao, China Radio International, 23 August 2011, http://gb.cri.cn/27824/2011/08/23/5190s3346664.htm.

disrupt the great national unity, instigating national hatred [and] separating relations between Vietnam and China.” 163 Hanoi authorities arrested dozens of protesters who gathered on August 21, the eleventh and final round of anti-China demonstrations, even though twenty five intellectuals posted a letter online condemning the protest ban as unconstitutional.164 As Deputy Minister of Defense

Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh concluded:

We have other ways to express our patriotism. Such mass gatherings do not lead to any result but affect political security not only in regards to foreign but also domestic policies. Such incidents should stop. 165 In 2012 and 2013, small and sporadic anti-China protests were quickly contained by Vietnamese authorities. A group of Vietnamese protesters even joined anti-China protests in Manila because “they could not easily stage protests in their country because of state restrictions on such public assemblies.” 166 In January 2014, anti-China activists in Hanoi were dispersed by security forces after thirty minutes. 167 In February, a similar attempt to commemorate the 1979 “Hanoi warns anti-China protesters to stop,” Agence France Presse, 18 August 2011.

Ibid.; Reuters, 21 August 2011.

“Vietnam seeks no outside help over China issues,” Tuoi Tre news, 28 October 2011, http://tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/politics/vietnam-seeks-no-outside-help-over-chinaissues-1.49570.

“Filipinos Protest China's Territorial Claims,” Associated Press, 24 July 2013.

Trung Nguyen, “Vietnam Activists Protest Disruption of Anniversary Ceremony,” VOA News, 20 January 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/vietnam-activists-protest-disruption-of-ceremony-marking-southchina-sea-battle/1833911.html.

Sino-Vietnamese War was obstructed, with activists alleging that aerobics and ballroom dancing activities had been specially arranged to block their path. 168 After China moved an exploratory oil rig to waters near the Paracel Islands in May 2014, Vietnamese authorities once again permitted larger-scale anti-Chinese demonstrations. For the first time, state-run media reported on the largely peaceful demonstrations. In three provinces, however, violent riots damaged hundreds of foreign-invested factories, leaving at least three Chinese dead and causing many Chinese to flee the country. Chinese officials warned that the Vietnamese government bore “unshirkable responsibility” for the attacks and demanded that Vietnam take swift measures to prevent further violence and punish the perpetrators. 169

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung appealed for calm, warning via text message:

“Bad elements should not be allowed to instigate extremist actions that harm the interests and image of the country.” 170 He also urged the protesters to “keep social order and security” 171—a message echoed by the mayor of Hanoi in a message to Communist Party colleagues. 172 Vietnamese authorities made more than 1,400 arrests to restore calm and reassure foreign Marianne Brown, “Anti-China Protesters in Hanoi Mark Border War Anniversary,” VOA News, 16 February 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/anti-china-protesters-in-hanoi-mark-border-waranniversary/1852347.html.

“China lodges solemn protest with Vietnam over deadly violence,” People’s Daily, 16 May 2014 (paraphrasing Wang); “China, Vietnam hold talks on recent anti-China violence,” Xinhua, 17 May 2014.

“Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung urges citizens to defend sovereignty against China,” Nguoi Viet Online, 16 May 2014.

“Chinese Boats Evacuate Citizens From Vietnam After Protests,” Bloomberg, 19 May 2014.

“Mayor in Vietnam capital calls for end to anti-China protest ahead of planned rallies,” Associated Press, 17 May 2014.

investors. 173 Although the Sino-Vietnamese dispute in the South China Sea continues, both governments were careful to prevent tensions over the oil rig from escalating to military conflict, and in July the Chinese government removed the controversial oil rig, asserting that it had completed its operation.

The Vietnamese case illustrates that the diplomatic context can create selective windows of opportunity for nationalist protests in autocratic regimes, opening when the government seeks to signal resolve and closing once a diplomatic agreement is reached or fears of instability outweigh anticipated benefits. Yet it also demonstrates that leaders of even stable autocracies are often quite fearful that nationalist protests will jeopardize domestic and diplomatic stability, curtailing demonstrations as soon as they begin to spin out of control and preventing nationalist sentiments from forcing international escalation. Vietnam’s curtailment of each wave of antiChina protests was not simply a consequence of China’s superior power. Vietnam demonstrated a willingness to take measures that angered China and risked escalation, such as conducting livefire naval drills near disputed waters after the 2011 cable-cutting incident, passing a 2012 law claiming the Spratlys and Paracels, and holding goodwill games with Philippine troops in 2014 on a disputed island. The authorities’ decision to subdue protests owed largely to domestic concerns—and perhaps also to the fact that protests did not prompt Chinese concessions.

The government’s ability to repress protests quickly explains why Vietnamese leaders did not adopt markedly more aggressive or uncompromising policies toward China in response to the demonstrations. China’s reaction to the protests illustrates the fact that when nationalist protests arise in autocratic regimes, foreign observers often doubt that they impose meaningful “Anti-China riots in Vietnam ease after 1,400 protesters arrested,” South China Morning Post, 16 May 2014.

constraints on the government. Rather, foreign observers often suspect protests are a cover for domestic grievances or affairs staged by the government, as Chinese authorities did, and offer few if any diplomatic concessions.

Anti-China Protests in the Philippines In 2011, 2012, and 2013, protests in the Philippines have denounced Chinese actions in the South China Sea, but the demonstrations’ small size and ties to the incumbent government have limited their independent influence on Philippine foreign policy and have been largely dismissed by Chinese observers as posing a credible constraint. Tensions between China and the Philippines increased sharply under the leadership of Benigno Aquino III, who was elected in mid-2010. In March 2011, Chinese naval patrol boats ordered a Philippine oil exploration vessel to stop its activities in waters they claimed belonged to China and reportedly threatened to ram the vessel. 174 In retaliation, the Aquino administration began referring to the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea”. 175 In July, reports of Chinese deepwater drilling activities within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines sparked protests by Filipinos in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Manila. In the United States, the anti-China protests were spearheaded by the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance, leading Chinese state media to dismiss the protests as organized by “pro-American” groups that had “received U.S.

Bonnie Glaser, “Tensions Flare in the South China Sea,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 30 June 2011, http://csis.org/publication/tensions-flare-south-china-sea “It’s official: Aquino signs order on West Philippine Sea,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13 September 2012.

funding.” 176 Xinhua quoted one expert saying that “Vietnam's anti-China wave was more violent, more organized, while in the Philippines, it’s organized by a few pro-American organizations and is not in great response.” 177 In 2012, Filipinos again staged anti-China protests in Manila and around the world during an eight-week standoff between Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels and Philippine coast guard ships around Scarborough Shoal. Tensions erupted in April when two Chinese maritime surveillance ships blocked an attempt by sailors aboard the Philippines’ largest warship to arrest Chinese fishermen. Manila replaced its warship with coast guard vessels, which stood off against the Chinese surveillance ships for two months. In retaliation, China reportedly increased restrictions on fruit imports from the Philippines. 178 On May 11, 2012, Philippine protesters gathered outside of the Chinese embassy in Manila. 179 The protests in Manila were organized by a party with ties to the Aquino government, Akbayan, which had received substantial funding from Aquino’s family and would win seats in the 2013 midterm elections with Aquino’s endorsement. 180 Although protest organizers had “Feilvbin De QinMei FanHua Jiyin, Wenhua Shou Mei Lao Yin, Wai Zhang Shou Mei Jiaoyu” [Philippines’ nature of pro-American and anti-China: it is influenced by American culture and the foreign minister was educated in the U.S.], Xinhua, 28 October 2011; “Filipino-Americans to hold anti-China protests in US,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 29 June 2011.


Carlyle A. Thayer, “Standoff in the South China Sea,” Yale Global Online, 12 June 2012, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/standoff-south-china-sea.

“Protest in Philippines over South China Sea stand-off,” BBC News, 11 May 2012.

“China warns citizens ahead of Manila protest on Friday,” Reuters, 9 May 2012; “PNoy’s sisters are among Akbayan’s biggest campaign donors in 2010,” GMA News, 25 October 2010.

expected about 1,000 people, media reports suggested that only 200 to 500 people showed up. 181 Ahead of the protests, Beijing had warned Chinese citizens in the Philippines to stay indoors, and Chinese travel agencies suspended tours. 182 Chinese media noted the number of demonstrators peaked at 200, when boxed lunches were distributed to participants, 183 and reported the Philippine government’s changing attitude toward the protests, saying that the cancellation of group tours had prompted the Aquino government to distance itself from the demonstrations.

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