May 18 2014, 12:51am CDT | by Forbes
Violence against Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam has spread to mayhem at factories run by South Korean, Taiwan and Singapore companies as well. It’s as though Vietnamese were protesting not only the heavy-handed construction by China of an oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea but also giving voice to a long litany of complaints against all those whom the Vietnamese see as exploiting them.
Vietnamese nationalism is a dominant factor. The Vietnamese people patriotically resent China’s claims to the entire South China Sea. They see China’s policy as a continuation of Chinese domination going back many centuries, almost into pre-history, when Chinese warlords controlled much of what is now northern Vietnam. The historic influence of China is evident in appearance, linguistic characteristics, religion and culture. Yet the Vietnamese have remained fiercely independent, and Vietnamese forces repelled the Chinese in vicious fighting in 1979.
The great paradox of the fighting between Vietnam and China was that China had been the major ally of the communist regime in Hanoi throughout the war against the United States and the U.S.-backed Saigon regime. Communist guerrillas in the south, i.e. the Viet Cong, fought under the banner of a National Liberation Front while Vietnamese soldiers from the north unified the country in the Spring of 1975, two years after the Americans had withdrawn their last remaining troops. The government in Hanoi came to exercise complete control over all Vietnam, easily defeating U.S.-backed forces in the south and then snuffing out the National Liberation Front when they saw it as it no longer needed — and competing with Hanoi for power in Saigon.
Although the forces in the north could not have won without Chinese arms, advice and economic aid, the victorious Vietnamese in Hanoi did not want their newly reunified country to remain a satellite of China. Relations between Vietnam and China have long been tense, never more so than when the two were fighting each other in 1979.
Another great paradox is that Hanoi has been improving ties with its old American enemy, accepting U.S. investment and occasionally hosting American warships on port visits. Having spent much time based in Saigon during the war as a correspondent, I wondered what kind of welcome I would receive on return visits. Vietnamese seem happy to meet Americans and other foreigners, whether for brief stays or longer postings.
The Chinese nowadays pose a much more immediate threat. They have refused to turn over the Paracel islands, which they had seized in 1974 from the old Saigon army, to Hanoi. The Paracels are uninhabited, except for soldiers and fishermen who come and go, but they are in the midst of a region that may be rich in deposits of oil and natural gas.
China’s grip on the Paracels, along with that oil rig in the same waters, dramatizes China’s rising power. South of the Paracels, the Chinese also claim another island cluster, the Spratlys. China is strengthening facilities on two or three of the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines control a number of the islands, but the fear is the Chinese sooner or later will drive them away.
The reaction among Vietnamese against China goes far beyond resentment of China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Vietnamese workers believe Chinese factory owners have been exploiting them, and their anger extends to projects owned by Chinese from non-communist enclaves. Vietnamese have also long resented what they see as harsh working conditions imposed by Korean factory owners and their managers.
On a popular level, people do not distinguish much between Chinese from China and those from elsewhere. They may know the difference between Chinese and Koreans but include South Korean bosses among their oppressors. Vietnamese leaders, having permitted the riots to flicker and flare, are suppressing them. They want the rioters to make their point, but they don’t want the mayhem to get out of control.
U.S. policy on Vietnam contrasts with the U.S. position on the Philippines. The U.S., the old enemy from Vietnam War days, is not going to aid Vietnam militarily while increasing assistance and rotating troops in and out of the one-time major U.S. bases in the Philippines under an enhanced defense agreement reached as President Obama was visiting this month.
Does that agreement, on top of the U.S.-Philippine mutual security treaty, dating from 1950, mean the U.S. would go to war if the Chinese take over Philippine-held islands or remain on the Scarborough shoal, in Philippine waters west of the port of Olongapo? That’s not clear, but the Philippines can be far more certain of U.S. military aid than the Vietnamese.
Given that reality, Vietnamese see anti-Chinese violence as maybe the best way to make their point about the oil rig and much else. The Vietnamese may be no match for the Chinese, but their outrage shows their fierce determination against any oppression, military or commercial, western or Asian.
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