Something unusual is starting to happen in Vietnam. For the first time, Vietnamese authorities are encouraging public discussion and even celebration of a historic battle with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea. In state-run media, in public demonstrations, and in the daily activities of fishermen, Hanoi is encouraging Vietnamese citizens to confront China in a more aggressive and more prominent way than anything in recent memory.
The story begins in 1974, when the America-backed South Vietnam government fought a battle against Chinese forces near the disputed Paracel Islands. The Vietnamese were defeated: Three of four ships retreated, the fourth sank with the captain aboard, and China gained control of the islands. Over the years, China has built up some of the larger islands. One, Yongxing Island, is inhabited by perhaps 1,000 people and is the seat of a newly established prefecture within the province of Hainan.
Until recently, there was barely any mention of the 1974 battle in Vietnam. It is not recorded in the history books used by students. That’s all changing, according to an excellent article by Nga Pham at the BBC:
National newspapers like Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre have in recent weeks been running a series of reports including detailed accounts by witnesses on how the Paracels were taken by China by force and descriptions of heroic actions by South Vietnamese sailors.
Public meetings have been held to commemorate the battle and there are calls to recognise the “martyrdom” of the fallen soldiers and offer support to their families….
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung reportedly told a meeting with leading Vietnamese historians at the end of December that the government was planning activities to commemorate the 1974 event, as well as the 1979 border war with China.
He also urged to include “these historical facts” in school textbooks.
Vietnam has always had a fraught relationship with its giant northern neighbor, but the Vietnamese authorities usually avoided irritating Beijing and were quick to disperse anti-China protests in the past.
The change might have come about for a number of reasons. The Communist government could be burnishing its nationalist credentials and domestic legitimacy by encouraging anti-China sentiment, or it could be diverting the public’s attention away from a struggling economy and political corruption. Or it could be an attempt to re-construct the historical narrative of the battle, in which soldiers from South Vietnam, rather than the Communist North, which is the forefather of the current government, fought and died in a battle with the Chinese.
Whatever the reason, the Vietnamese government is visibly encouraging the public to be more aggressively anti-China. There have been suggestions that Hanoi has been urging fishermen to work in waters claimed by China and to disregard China’s new rules regarding foreign fishermen operating in a vast area of the South China Sea. Vietnam is still too weak to hope to challenge China on the high seas, but it is building a formidable navy as quickly as possible (new Russia-made submarines starting arrive this month). Meanwhile, officials from Hanoi might visit their old foes in Washington to encourage the Obama administration to maintain its balancing presence in Asia.