The relationship between China and Vietnam is long and complex. Originally, tribes that had migrated to China moved south along the coast and populated Southeast Asia. That was in pre-history, so the exact patterns of migration are not known. Then during the long period of Chinese dominance in Asia from pre-history until Europeans disrupted Chinese dominance in the 18th century, China extracted tribute from other Southeast Asian kingdoms, like Vietnam. Vietnam, however, was independent from China from 1400 onward, which changed the relationship and made it more complex. In the 19th century the French colonized Vietnam and stayed until 1954 when they were chased out.
By 1954 Vietnam was beginning to have a communist North and a democratic South; China was supportive of the Northern communists. Since 1973, when the Americans left South Vietnam, the country has struggled to become a unified communist nation and since 1986 the communists have attempted to liberalize the economy. Vietnam is yet another Communist country attempting to restructure itself towards a free-market economy. In the struggle there are several geography conflicts with neighboring countries.
South China Sea
The most contested part of Vietnam’s territory is offshore. Vietnam has disputes with Cambodia and China over territorial rights in the waters off Vietnam’s coasts. Cambodia accuses Vietnam of illicit cross-border activities, yet the two countries are working on a joint development area that would support both countries and begin to improve cross-boarder incursions. The project is hampered, however, by an unresolved dispute over the sovereignty of offshore islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The dispute runs back to colonial days when France controlled both countries. After independence neither country was satisfied with the way the French Governor General left arrangements when they left in 1954. The two islands under dispute are Quan Phu Quoc and the smaller Wei island.
The Chinese/ Vietnamese dispute is over the Paracel Islands. In 2009 China and Cambodia completed a decade long demarcation of the land border between them, which is the northern most boundary of Vietnam. But China occupies the Parcel Islands and both Taiwan and Vietnam make identical claims to sovereignty over the islands. The islands are east of the Gulf of Tonkin and are about 300 miles off Vietnam’s coast. The north side of the Gulf of Tonkin is China and the South side of the Gulf is Vietnam. The Parcel Islands are about equal distance from both countries. They are yet another territorial dispute happening in the South China Sea.
In the last ten years, since China has expanding and modernized its Navy there have been a long list of disputes over islands, reefs and drilling rights in the East and South China Seas. Vietnam is not the first or only country with an active ongoing territorial dispute with China. In 2002 the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded a Declaration On The Conducct Of Parties In The South China Sea, which was intended to promote peaceful, friendly and harmonious relations between ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of China. The declaration outlined a code of conduct in 10 statements within the document. In the twelve years since that declaration China’s navy has grown considerably and China has consistently found ways to aggressively press claims to islands and drilling territories in the ocean without violating the treaty outright.
The most recent iteration of the conflict began on May first when China’s state-owned oil company, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, placed an oil drilling rig in the disputed waters 150 miles from Vietnam’s coast and near the south-western end of the Paracel Islands. The Vietnamese people have responded violently to what they consider an incursion of their territorial sovereignty. There have been riots and destructive attacks on Chinese and Taiwanese owned businesses and factories in Vietnam. There also have been deaths.
There are over 40,000Taiwanese people living in Vietnam and many of them are active commercial agents and business owners. So far over 2,000 Taiwanese have left for home, which bodes poorly for the Vietnamese economy. China has taken the lead in rebuffing Vietnam over these riots and civil unrest. Oddly China is speaking for Taiwan, which is awkward considering Taiwan considers itself an independent country. But for Vietnam the over all effect is the same no matter if China or Taiwan is the voice of condemnation. Vietnam is caught between their need to assert their territorial rights and their need to practice civility.
Chinese nationals living in Vietnam are also being targeted in the Vietnamese riots. The Vietnamese government has denounced the violence but also asked the Vietnamese people to defend the “fatherland.” China has accused the United States of supporting Vietnam and stirring up provocation. Essentially, the countries of South East Asia are less of a borderland of Chinese imperial influence than they were in the distant past, and yet the economic influence of China remains a potent social force within Vietnam. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and the Chinese are using their economic ties to influence Vietnam as much as they can and to challenge any influence the United States has in the region. The South China Sea is the territorial hotspot where these conflicts and politics are played out.