Monday, December 10, 2012

Anti-China protests: Vietnam's turn

In the recent wave of anti-Japan protests in China, we've wondered how much of it was genuinely spontaneous and how much (contrary to official appearances) state-instrumented. The signals are even harder to read in Vietnam, where several were actually arrested in anti-China protests Dec. 8. At issue is the contested South China Sea and its oilfields, a question that has (paradoxically, for those who can remember back just to the 1960s) caused Vietnam to tilt to the US in the New Cold War with China. Has the regime's anti-China propaganda (and exploitation of hopes for an oil bonanza to lift the nation out of poverty) created something now a little out of control? Or are even the arrests part of a choreographed game? From AP:
Vietnamese police broke up anti-China protests in two cities on Sunday and detained 20 people in the first such demonstrations since tensions between the communist neighbors flared anew over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

Any sign of popular anger in tightly controlled Vietnam causes unease among the leadership, but anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive. The country has long-standing ideological and economic ties with its giant neighbor, but many of those criticizing China are also the ones calling for political, religious and social freedoms at home.

Police initially allowed about 200 protesters to march from Hanoi's iconic Opera House through the streets, but after 30 minutes ordered them to disperse. When some continued, they pushed about 20 of them into a large bus which then drove quickly from the scene. It was unclear where they were taken, but in the past people detained at anti-China protests have been briefly held and released.

As foreign tourists and Sunday morning strollers looked on, protesters shouted "Down with China" and carried banners bearing the slogan "China's military expansion threatens world peace and security."

Using loudspeakers, authorities urged them to disperse and tried to reassure them.

"The Communist Party and government are resolutely determined to defend our country's sovereignty and territory through peaceful means based on international law," it said. "Your gathering causes disorder and affects the party's and government's foreign policy."
That line about how "anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive" strikes us as a bit naive. It is undoubtedly true, but ignores the longstanding rivalry between the neighbors, and how the Hanoi protests could be of political use to the Vietnamese regime—the loudspeaker dude's admonition that the gathering could "affect foreign policy" is ironically telling. AFP informs us that the protesters attempted to march on Hanoi's Chinese embassy, and that a similar rally was held in Ho Chi Minh City. And the "spontaneous" outburst comes on the heels of another maritime confrontation. Reuters, Dec. 6:
China told Vietnam on Thursday to stop unilateral oil exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, again raising tensions in a protracted maritime territorial dispute with its neighbor.

Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels from waters near China's southern Hainan province, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.

Hong's description of the confrontation last Friday was in contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing ships.

"Vietnam's statement is inconsistent with the facts," Hong said.
And with the leadership change in Beijing, there appears to be a sort of good-cop-bad-cop game going on. Incoming boss Xi Jinping strikes a conciliatory note. From the South China Morning Post, Dec. 6:
The new Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping, assured foreign experts in Beijing yesterday that China was not seeking hegemony and would continue to open up to the world.

Xi made the remarks during a meeting with 20 experts from 16 countries at the Great Hall of the People, his first meeting with foreign visitors since his appointment.

"China is following a path of peaceful development," Xi told the experts, who are all working in China.

He added that the country's progress was not detrimental to other countries. China's development "is absolutely not a challenge or threat to other countries. China will not seek hegemony or expansionism," Xi said.
Contrast the more hardline verbiage from the outgoing Hu Jintao. From AFP via the Manila Times, Nov. 9:
Against a backdrop of simmering territorial disputes with its neighbors, President Hu Jintao indicated China would continue to assert its disputed claims to maritime territories as he addressed the ruling Communist Party’s congress.

"We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power," Hu said in his speech to more than 2,200 delegates in Beijing.

His comments were likely to fuel alarm among China’s neighbors, some of whom have watched warily as Beijing builds up its military amid offshore disputes...

"It is not surprising to hear leaders in [China] speak about their intention to engage in maritime activities," said a foreign ministry spokesman in Tokyo. "But those activities must be carried out in a peaceful manner based on international law."

Hu said that China was committed to a peaceful foreign policy but must continue a military build-up that has seen huge sums poured into developing fighting capacities.

Citing "interwoven problems affecting its survival," he said that China must build a "strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing."

Hu called for China in particular to step up the military’s technological abilities, saying its most important task was to be able to "win a local war in an information age."
If China were to get into a "local war" with, say, Vietnam, would it stay local—that is, confined to powers within the sphere of East and Southeast Asia? In fact, would there even be any question about China winning unles another Great Power got involved? You barely have to read between the lines here to see where this is headed...

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