The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
China-Vietnam Rift Are Chinese Troops Massing on Vietnam’s Border?

Media sources claim that Chinese troops are massing on the border with Vietnam, ostensibly in reaction to the ongoing anti-China unrest there. According to Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily, which is generally considered to be close to the Chinese government-run media: “A large number of People’s Liberation Army troops have reportedly been spotted heading towards the China-Vietnam border as tensions between the two countries continue to escalate.” Other outlets have also picked up the story, but the reports have yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, China is evacuating its citizens from Vietnam. The Guardian reports:

The passenger ship Wuzhishan left the central Vietnamese port of Vung Ang with 989 evacuees on board, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported. It was the first of four Chinese ships, each with a capacity of about 1,000, sent to Vietnam, Xinhua said, with a further two on standby.

Riots swept through Vietnam last week as thousands of people protested against symbols of China—factories, industrial parks, embassies, people who looked Chinese. The unrest began when Chinese and Vietnamese ships confronted each other near a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea; both countries claim the area along with the oil and gas under the sea floor. “Long live Vietnam!” and “The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam,” were two common chants heard at protests in Vietnam’s largest cities.

The protests continued over the weekend but appear to be petering out as of Monday. “On Sunday in Ho Chi Minh City, police carried away some protesters among the hundreds who had gathered at the city’s Notre Dame cathedral,” the WSJ reports. “In Hanoi, hundreds of uniformed policemen and others in plainclothes dispersed a group of about 100 people gathering at a park near China’s embassy, as police with loudspeakers ordered people to leave the area.” The Vietnamese government, which at first allowed small-scale “patriotic” protests to go ahead, is now trying to regain control of the situation, lest foreign investors (including China) become worried about an unstable situation.

Indeed, Vietnamese and Chinese commentators warned of lasting economic damage if security is not restored and if the Vietnamese authorities don’t do enough to restore China’s confidence in its smaller southern neighbor. “The Vietnamese government will do the best we can to help companies resume normal production as soon as possible,” reads a statement from Vietnam’s economic and cultural representative office in Taiwan. Unfortunately, Vietnam probably can’t have it both ways. Hanoi will have to choose between letting the conflict fade away or fighting for its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea at the risk of angering the Chinese government and foreign businesses that have found Vietnam to be a profitable home. Hanoi’s choice will have an impact on future South China Sea disputes between China and its other neighbors. Next up? The Philippines.

Published on May 19, 2014 12:12 pm
  • Anthony

    This is why Vietnam needs nuclear weapons. If they have nukes, China will think twice about taking a page out of Putin’s playbook.

  • Anthony

    “Media sources claim…” “Vietnam probably can’t have it both ways.” And so it continues.

  • Corlyss

    Monkey see . . . monkey do. It worked for Putin. It’s open season for any current or former tyrannical nation that wants to try the same tactic. Don’t know what kind of mutual defense arrangement with any other nation in the region, but don’t come a-knock knock knockin’ at our front door.

  • El Gringo

    “Vietnamese and Chinese commentators warned of lasting economic damage if security is not restored and if the Vietnamese authorities don’t do enough to restore China’s confidence in its smaller southern neighbor.”

    What about restoring Vietnam’s confidence in its larger northern neighbor? By, for example, not unilaterally annexing Vietnamese territory?

    Vietnam is not Ukraine. And China should take heed of history. Their last invasion of Vietnam didn’t go so well.

    • B-Sabre

      That’s true, but things are also different from the 1979 (interestingly, I had not realized that there was a series of small engagements between China and Vietnam along the border in 1984-1985).
      - China has probably spent a lot more money modernizing and equipping their forces than the Vietnamese have. I haven’t found a comprehensive list, but it looks like the Vietnamese army order of battle is still mostly made up of 1980′s equipment, with a scattering of more modern bits here and there.
      - The Chinese army that came across the border in 1979 hadn’t fought a major engagement as a force since Korea, and was up against a Vietnamese army freshly triumphant in the war against the South. It’s now been 35 years since the Vietnamese have conducted a major ground operation against an enemy. I’d say both armies are inexperienced in battle, but the Chinese at least have been practicing modern operations. Not sure what the Vietnamese have been doing…