Sino–Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea

Author: Justin Ho Cheng Lun, ANU

Analysis of the current disputes playing out in the South China Sea has focused on grand strategic balances and geopolitical interests.

While such analysis is important, domestic politics within the claimant states should not be downplayed or overlooked. With regard to the Sino–Vietnamese dispute over islands in the South China Sea, recent events clearly illustrate that nationalism and internal bureaucratic politics are key to understanding the escalating tensions between the two countries.

Chinese nationalism and irredentism have recently become a potent feature of China’s foreign policy. As China becomes a global superpower, its government and people see an increasing need for China to be more assertive in defending its sovereignty. This serves partly to rectify the grievances suffered by China during the ‘century of humiliation’ (from about 1949 onwards), when it was forced by Western powers to sign a series of unjust and humiliating treaties that led to the loss of many Chinese territories. On the South China Sea issue, such a ‘victimised’ mentality has been evident in calls by Chinese nationalists for Beijing to step up military deployments in the region, in order to send a message to other claimant states. It is clear that, if Chinese leaders do not cater to popular nationalist sentiment, the political regime itself could become the subject of criticism.

As in China, rising nationalism in Vietnam is exacerbating the potential for conflict. In fact, nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea dispute runs stronger in Vietnam than in any other claimant state. Last year, anti-China protests over the South China Sea went on for 12 consecutive weeks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City before the authorities decided to shut them down, lest the demonstrations turn against the government.

Vietnamese nationalism today is inextricably linked to anti-China sentiment and the South China Sea dispute. Whereas Chinese nationalism is focused on correcting past humiliations, Vietnamese nationalism is centred on its long history of resistance, particularly to China. A millennium of Chinese imperialism and the 1979 Sino–Vietnamese war have fostered a deep sense of mistrust and resentment among the Vietnamese toward China. Prominent Vietnamese political, military and intellectual figures have already called for the Vietnam Politburo to act more assertively toward China. If a military confrontation occurs, domestic pressure would likely compel Vietnamese leaders to stand up to China, despite the obvious difference in military strength.

Furthermore, Vietnamese leaders would be tempted to antagonise China in order to score political points at home during times of unstable domestic conditions. Former Republic of Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, sought to provoke a conflict with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in 1974 to rally nationalist sentiment and bolster his faltering political position.

Internal bureaucratic politics has led to unexpected and dangerous foreign policy consequences in the past. In 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed after the Vietnamese forces sought to disrupt Chinese construction on the Spratly Islands. The Chinese navy sank three Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the deaths of 74 Vietnamese sailors — one of the most serious military confrontations ever seen in the South China Sea.

A major cause of this incident was the aggressive expansion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy during that time. Admiral Liu Huaqing, then commander of the PLA Navy, sought to modernise it, citing China’s need to assert its sovereignty over its far-flung maritime resources. In exchange for support from the military, the Chinese political leadership was willing to endorse operations in the South China Sea. Diplomatic objections by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were undermined, and the PLA Navy was able to escalate the dispute by dispatching warships to engage the Vietnamese navy in the South China Sea.

Today many other domestic actors in China, such as the Hainan provincial government and domestic law enforcement agencies, have taken up the cause of the South China Sea in defending Chinese maritime sovereignty against Vietnam and the Philippines. They are primarily motivated by the possibility of obtaining more budgetary resources from Beijing (as in the case of the South Sea Marine Surveillance and South Sea Fisheries) or obtaining revenues from exploiting resources in the South China Sea (as in the case of the Hainan provincial government). Rising nationalist sentiment and public scrutiny over the South China Sea are providing such groups an excellent platform for bureaucratic jostling for increased funding and political power.

With the growth in the number of domestic actors, stakeholders and institutions involved in the South China Sea dispute, domestic politics will become increasingly important in explaining tensions among claimant states. While great-power rivalry and regional geopolitical competition are certainly prevalent, internal variables such as nationalism and bureaucratic politics could, in the long run, lead claimant states onto a collision course in the South China Sea.

Justin Ho Cheng Lun is an honours student at the Department of International Relations, the Australian National University.


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  • Wei Ling Chua

    Factual errors in this article:

    1)China’s ‘century of humiliation’ is not from about 1949 onwards. It began from the Opium war in 1840. More than 40 unfair treaties were forced upon China by all world powers over that time. Wikipedia recorded more than 20 of them:

    2)In 1958 Vietnam government stated in writing that those islands belong to China. This is the link to the document:

    The following is the English translation:
    The Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Government agreed to the terms of China’s public statment in 9-4-1958 about China’s sea territory claim.The Democratic Republic of Vietnam Government respects it, and will direct all Agencies to absolutely respect the 12 nautical miles sea territory of China
    in all matters with the People’s Republic of China in the East Sea.

    Vietnam only began to claim those islands after the UN report in the 1970s about the potential of huge amount of oil and gas resources.

    3) Therefore, island disputes are not about nationalism from the perspective of China; it is about sovereignty. The basis of the island claims in South China Sea between Taiwan (ROC) and mainland China (PRC) are the same. Taiping island, the biggest in South China sea claim by Vietnam as well, was returned to the ROC before the Communist took over China in 1949 after Japan defected in WWII:
    Till this day, the Taiwanese army (ROC army) is still stationed at Taiping Island.

    It fascinates me that so many people write about island disputes in South China Sea without getting the basic facts right.

    • mary pham

      You are wrong on 3 basic facts:
      1. The 1954 Geneva Convention established that the 17th parallel was the dividing line for 2 Vietnam(s), north of that line is the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and any south of that line belonged to the Republic of Vietnam. China was 1 of the major sponsoring powers at that Conference when Paracel and Spratly island groups were handed to the Republic of Vietnam and they did not object.
      In 1958, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam wrote a letter indicating its respect of the 12 mile sea right of China (he never mentioned Paracel/Spratly islands and/or Chinese sovereignty), what he really meant was the mainland coastline and surrounding coastline of Hainan. He had no internationally authorized power to give away what was owned by the Republic of Vietnam. That’s why in 1974, the Chinese navy attacked and took control of Paracel islands from the Republic of Vietnam. China should just stop using this legally invalid document as proof that Vietnam agreed with them. They can’t be confused when they were at the Geneva Conference and also helped Democratic Republic of Vietnam to fight with the Republic of Vietnam.
      2. Vietnam did not just start claiming these islands since the 1970’s, after oil was discovered. More than that, Republic of Vietnam controlled Paracel islands until the Chinese took them as mentioned above. In 1988, Chinese navy again attacked and killed 78 Vietnamese living in 8 Spratly islands. Up to that time, China had no presence in the Spratly islands group.
      3. The only reason why ROC has controlled of the Taiping island is because they were a part of the victorious Allies after WWII and were assigned to disarm Japanese forces. The Japanese army had a military base on that island, the only one permanently habitable of all. Protest was logged by the Republic of Vietnam as to the illegal presence of the ROC.

    • Duc

      The president of North Vietnam signed a paper making over islands which belonged to the South Vietnam government. Those agreements were not valid.
      The islands have belonged to Vietnam since the Nguyen dynasty (1802.

  • Hai Do

    Could the author provide more evidence in support the the following statement quoted from the text?

    “Former Republic of Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, sought to provoke a conflict with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in 1974 to rally nationalist sentiment and bolster his faltering political position.”

  • Hung Nguyen

    The rest of the world knows that China provoked President Nguyen Van Thieu and took Paracels from South Vietnam with brutal force in 1974, leaving a warship sunk and 58 Vietnamese dead.

    • Tony Tran

      Can the author please refer to the following statements:

      From 5th to 8th, September, 1951, the Allies in World War II held a conference in San Francisco (United States) to discuss the ending of the war in Asia-Pacific region and opened postwar relations with Japan. According to the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan must give up all rights and ambitions with two archipelagoes: the Paracels and the Spratlys.

      Treaty also denied that Japan had recognized China’s sovereignty over the Paracels and the islands further south. On September, 9th, 1951, at the San Francisco conference, Tran Van Huu, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the National Government of Vietnam solemnly declared in the presence of 51 participating countries that the two archipelagoes, Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, are the long-standing territory of Vietnam. Mr Huu said: “Vietnam is excited for signing for the peace. And frankly, to take opportunity to extinguish all disputes later, we have confirmed our long-standing sovereignty over the territory of the Paracels and the Spratlys.

      The affirmation of sovereignty of the delegation of Vietnam recorded documents of the Conference of San Francisco (1951) was agreed with the majority. There was neither any reaction nor any claim against from all the participating countries.