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Foreign Policy

China and Vietnam: Riots and the Risk of Escalation in the South China Sea

May 29 , 2014

Over the past month, Sino-Vietnamese relations have plunged to their lowest point since the two countries normalized relations at the end of the Cold War. The latest row erupted after China moved an oil rig into disputed waters and defended it by ramming and firing water cannons at Vietnamese patrol vessels dispatched to the area. Those events prompted the largest anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam to date, and for the first time, protests descended into

Jessica Chen Weiss

For Vietnam’s leaders, allowing anti-China protests is a way to signal resolve by effectively committing the government to a hardline position on the territorial dispute. Allowing demonstrations also broadcasts grievances and draws attention to the dispute. Vietnam’s official media has been unusually active in covering the latest wave of anti-China demonstrations, including a rare self-immolation by a 67-year-old woman in Ho Chih Minh City. Chinese foreign ministry official Ouyang Yujing accused Vietnam of seeking to “generate a media hype and ‘put up a show’ in front of the international audience.” International involvement is a key part of Vietnam’s strategy to raise the costs of Beijing’s unilateral advances in the South China Sea. 

Vietnamese leaders have long understood these hazards. In an authoritarian state, anti-foreign protests can serve as portals for the expression of broader social and political grievances. In July 2011, 20 prominent Vietnamese intellectuals seized the opening created by anti-China protests to issue an extraordinary petition criticizing Hanoi’s economic and foreign policies. Public demonstrations also reduce the space for face-saving diplomatic compromises, especially if they descend into attacks on foreign persons and property.                                                     

Hanoi’s limited options help explain its rising tolerance for anti-China rallies. Nationalist protests are most credible as expressions of popular will and most effective at garnering attention and signaling resolve precisely when they threaten to exceed the government’s control. As China has pushed inexorably forward, Vietnamese leaders have taken greater risks. Thus far, there is little evidence that allowing selected protests has helped Vietnam arrest Chinese advances or drive Beijing toward earnest multilateral talks, but the nationalist genie in Vietnam is now well out of the bottle, and the government may find it difficult to put back. 

Beijing has incentives to talk tough but downplay the extent of popular nationalism on both sides. China controls the Paracels and has a commanding position in the area, with a growing lead in relevant naval capabilities and potent economic levers to pull against Vietnam. It does not need to signal resolve and has a strong disinterest in generating international attention, which is anathema to Beijing’s salami tactics in the South China Sea. The PRC also stands little to gain from amplifying nationalist rhetoric and contributing to a crisis on the eve of the sensitive 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4. 

But the killing of Chinese nationals this month has tested the limits of China’s willingness to restrain its own nationalists. Thus far, Chinese propaganda authorities have kept state-owned media relatively quiet, emphasizing Vietnamese efforts to arrest the “troublemakers” and characterizing the violence as riots against foreign-invested firms. Even an op-ed by former senior military official Luo Yuan called for Chinese to be calm, trust the party to act wisely given the larger strategic picture, and consider Chinese compatriots in Vietnam. Some Chinese veterans were allowed to demonstrate in Shenzhen, protesting the US pivot and calling for the defense of the South China Sea, but authorities prevented an anti-Vietnamese protest from materializing in Kunming, according to an American expatriate there. 

China’s disinterest in fanning the flames of Vietnamese nationalism gives Hanoi an opportunity to make amends. If the Vietnamese government is able to dampen popular nationalism and satisfy China’s demands for accountability, it will avoid a more serious rupture and reduce the near-term risk of war. But in doing so, Hanoi will drift back into the quieter diplomatic game China seeks to play. 

John D. Ciorciari is an assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, and author of The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975 (Georgetown University Press, 2010). 

Jessica Chen Weiss is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University and author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, forthcoming August 2014).


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