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Recently, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Center released its annual report on the state of Southeast Asia which, among other things, revealed that Vietnamese distrust of China remains very high. Given China’s actions in the South China Sea and the long history between the two countries, it’s understandable why the negative view of China is so prevalent. What is less understood is how the intersection of Chinese action and Vietnamese history and nationalism today constrain Vietnamese foreign policy choices with regard to China.

Following its conquest of Saigon after the Vietnamese and American War in 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) took control of the entire Vietnamese country for the first time. As the party began to rebuild its nation, it also needed to develop legitimacy in power. An element of the CPV’s legitimacy has always been this as defenders of Vietnamese independence. Strong defense against the French, Americans and Chinese cemented the CPV’s defender status. As Martin Grobheim says, “since [CPV] launched its reform policy (đổi mới) in 1986, the party and its “memory machine” continued to broadcast an orthodox master narrative that presents the VCP as the heir to the Vietnamese tradition of resistance against foreign invaders. Alongside the performance-based legitimacy that is underpinned by continued economic growth, this perception is central to its legitimacy, and reinforced by the “spreading of an orthodox master narrative”.

The CPV’s adoption of the mantle of defenders of Vietnamese independence against foreign incursions is significant because this narrative holds special significance in Vietnamese history. Since BC 111, Vietnam has faced constant attacks from foreign invaders. In 111 BC. The first Chinese rule over Vietnam began when the Han dynasty marched south and conquered the country. Besides the times when Vietnam briefly regained its independence (40 AD- 43 AD and 544 AD- 602 AD), China would rule Vietnam for over a thousand years. It was not until 939 AD that Ngo Quyen defeated Chinese forces and regained Vietnamese independence. This independence would last until 1400 AD when the Chinese restored control of the country for only twenty-seven years. After this brief period, Vietnam would once again experience freedom until the arrival of the French in 1845. Over the next 140 years, France and Japan would each control it for a period while it fought off foreign incursions from the French, Japanese, Americans and Chinese. The national identity – and the nationalism – forged by the defense of its independence and in particular against China have guided its history.

With this history of fighting against Chinese imperialism, when the Chinese invasion of 200,000 soldiers killed between 20,000 and 50,000 Vietnamese, China was the nation that modern Vietnamese nationalism defined itself in opposition to. This is clear in its modern culture. For example, as Bill Hayton explains in his book Vietnam: Rising Dragon, a children’s folk song used in the 1970s to promote harmony between Vietnamese and Chinese, was changed in the late 1980s from from the focus on affinities with its northern neighbor to the imperialist nature of China towards Vietnam. The CPV has further integrated this view of China into the cultural ethos by focusing the national history curriculum on prominent Vietnamese who resisted Chinese invasions. Likewise, streets and buildings are named after them, such as the Trung sisters, who repelled a Chinese invasion in 40 AD, or Ly Thuong Kiet, who fought the Sung Empire in 1076. Anti-Chinese sentiment is now palpable in Vietnamese culture.

China’s actions have only solidified this nationalist view of them as an ambitious imperial power for Vietnamese territory since 1979. China’s dubious claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, islands and resources it contains—including the Paracel and Spratly Islands that China and Vietnam both claim—plays a vital role in reinforcing this perception of China. Chinese actions in the South China Sea have included an array of threatening tactics such as island building, maritime patrols in other countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones while harassing foreign fishermen, and construction of military installations equipped with missile systems and other equipment.

China has not hesitated to assert its territorial claims with Vietnam. For example, in 1988 Chinese ships rammed three Vietnamese ships, sinking them and killing seventy-four Vietnamese soldiers. Since then, China has maintained its assertive tactics in the South China Sea, including incidents specific to Vietnam, including a 2014 collision with an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and a six-month standoff between Vietnam, China and Malaysia in 2020.

With this historical backdrop as context, modern distrust of China is as high as it is of the Vietnamese is better understood. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Center’s annual State of Southeast Asia report, mentioned earlier, illustrates this reality. The survey found an overwhelming 73% of Vietnamese would side with the United States over China if forced to choose. Similarly, he found that 80% of Vietnamese are worried about China’s growing influence in the region.

History may not play a determining role, but it certainly amplifies reactions to Chinese action, especially when it threatens Vietnamese territory or autonomy. Consider the May 2014 incident in which China stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed territory in the South China Sea, triggering a harsh reaction among the Vietnamese population. Soon after China’s bold move and some escalating actions from both sides, rioters began targeting foreign factories and foreign workers. Specifically, they targeted ethnically Chinese workers and factories. For example, a mob of 1,000 invaded a Taiwanese steel mill, attacking Chinese workers and setting the place on fire. Violent groups set fire to fifteen factories of foreign nationals and mobs attacked hundreds more in southern Vietnam. Placards carried by protesters were full of references to China and the South China Sea (or East China Sea as Vietnam calls it) disputes, while some protested directly outside the Chinese Embassy . More than 600 Chinese nationals are said to have fled the country.

As the Guardian reported, these groups were not just leading the protests against China, but the VCP for not doing enough to protect Vietnamese territory. The CPV is aware that China and independence drive Vietnamese nationalism and ensure that its anger is not directed against them.

As a result, the distinct form of nationalism that is hyper-sensitive to maintaining territorial security and strategic autonomy has had a constraining effect on Vietnam’s political choices, especially with Chinese investments. For example, in 2018, the Vietnamese government considered a policy that would grant foreign investors a ninety-nine-year lease in three economic zones to incentivize investment. Again, this fear sparked widespread fears of losing autonomy to greater Chinese influence and presence in Vietnam. After pressure from massive and passionate protests across the country, the National Assembly shelved the bill indefinitely.

Likewise, the North-South Expressway project is a key infrastructure initiative that aims to connect the whole of Vietnam in a radically new way. From 2005, the government drew up a plan to build 5,870 km of highway by 2020, but the government had only developed 1,163 km by then. As Doan Loan explains, “To explain the slow progress, the ministry cited the country’s limited financial resources, saying that the state budget can only cover investments for the renovation and upgrading of the national road network. “.

This inability to fund the project became problematic when the government opened bids for the eastern part of the highway in 2019. Given Vietnam’s inability to fund the projects themselves, outside investors are said to be investing in eight of the eleven sub-projects. During the bidding process, China was the leading bidder. Of the sixty bids received, thirty were from Chinese companies – an unpleasant proposition given the length of these projects and the strong Chinese presence that would result from awarding the bids. As a result, citizens expressed acceptable opposition online, and soon after the government rejected all foreign proposals in a move that experts said was a direct response to offers from China. Since then, the government has failed to find any domestic enterprises prepared for the venture and has transformed the remaining eight projects (while adding one sub-project) into state-funded enterprises.

As Leon Trotsky is supposed to have once said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Tolstoy explained to the reader that war is too powerful a force for any one person to ignore. This same phenomenon applies to history, which plays a determining role in our lives, our countries and our cultures. Sometimes, as in the case of Vietnam, it can play a crucial role in a state’s foreign policy. Its defense against foreign invaders and its history of struggle against China characterize its nationalism, which is activated by Chinese actions and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Through the influence of this nationalism, the history between these two nations plays an important role in limiting Vietnamese engagement with China.