Days not forgotten

Internationally, the rhythms of Vietnam’s political calendar are not frequently discussed. And yet in the context of escalating regional tensions and of fragile efforts to address them, it is worth knowing that January, February, and March of each year are months in which Vietnamese political passions toward China burn especially hot. An appreciation of the reasons for this provides insights into Vietnamese perspectives on the China’s current expansionary tilt and the complexities Hanoi faces in coping with it.

Relations between Vietnam and China stretch back thousands of years and have had rough patches stretching across centuries. Yet current tensions between the two countries’ states have strikingly recent origins. In the context of Beijing’s creeping efforts to enforce its outsized and legally baseless claims, three days on the Vietnamese calendar stand out.

The first is January 19, on which day in 1974 mainland forces launched a murderous assault and seizure of key islands in the Hoang Sa chain, over which Vietnam had demonstrated sovereignty for centuries, up through the colonial and post-colonial periods. Incensed by Beijing’s acts, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Party Secretary’s dependence on China made constraint the only option. Today, the 74 young soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam who perished in the defense of Vietnamese islands are hailed as national heroes across northern and southern Vietnam, but not officially. Wisely or not, and to the ire of many Vietnamese, Hanoi has mostly repressed public commemorations.

Next comes 17 February, on which day in 1979 Beijing launched its full-scale if ill-fated invasion of northern Vietnam. Unfolding amid a US-Sino detente, Beijing’s was intent on “teaching Vietnam a lesson” for Hanoi’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia which, we might recall, removed the genocidal Beijing-backed regime of Pol Pot from power. A failure in military terms, the war resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese. Given Washington’s current concern over China’s military expansion, it is worth remembering that Beijing’s invasion was, among others, an attempt to signal its readiness to ally with the US against Vietnam and a perceived Soviet threat. Indeed, most analysts trace the origins of China’s current militarization to lingering paranoia associated with the abject failure of its adventures in Vietnam.

In Vietnam itself, Beijing’s 1979 invasion is remembered, but again unofficially. This year, untold thousands of Vietnamese took to wearing pins and displaying Facebook profile pictures bearing the image of the Rose Myrtle flower, which is native to the region where hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese perished in war more stupid than most.

Finally we come to the current week and the date March 14, as it was on this day in 1988 that Beijing launched its most recent illegitimate bid, this time in an effort to seize islands in the Spratly chain, including islands over which Vietnam had demonstrated clear historical sovereignty. On this occasion, PLA open fired on their “socialist brothers” before reportedly overseeing the watery death of dozens in decidedly sadistic fashion. To date, Hanoi’s official death toll from the incident remains set at 64. Though some in Hanoi claim the actual figure was closer to 200. On that day, first-hand accounts recall, mainland forces encircled dozens of Vietnamese sailors set adrift from their sunken ship, shooting at them, denying them exit, and watching them drown over a period of hours.

These wounds are not forgotten in Hanoi, but nor are they given voice. Nor typically is anger about Beijing’s maritime conduct. For since 1988 Vietnamese fishermen have been subject to innumerable beatings, ransomed detentions, and killings.

Hanoi’s record of official silence in one of the world’s most fiercely independent countries is remarkable in its own right. It is also consistent with an ancient but deeply controversial set of assumptions regarding the best way of coping with China. According to this perspective, to maintain independence and sovereignty it is necessary to be silent, to pay respects to Beijing, and to assume the conduct of a ‘little brother,’ or even a vassal state. Unsurprisingly, this approach is despised among legions of Vietnamese worldwide. More importantly for Hanoi, it is an approach that may have outlived its usefulness.