NEWS ANALYSIS

Anti-China riots: Hanoi's tough juggling act

Vietnam faces dilemma of balancing nationalism against economic needs

EVEN after anti-China riots left close to 200 people injured and at least two Chinese nationals dead, Vietnamese protesters gathered again on Sunday in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to vent their rage against Beijing.

But this time, their protests were snuffed out by the massive security presence deployed by the government.

Vietnam, cognisant of growing economic ties with its giant neighbour, has to carefully weigh how much free rein to give nationalist sentiments in the country without being seen as caving in to China.

"Vietnam must satisfy nationalist demands yet at the same time it has to maintain a stable relationship with China," said Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Vietnamese nationalist sentiments are not to be underestimated. The two neighbours have a turbulent history, with Vietnam always wary of Chinese attempts to dominate it. The two countries fought a brief but brutal war in 1979, which ended with Chinese troops beating a retreat.

The May 2 deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both sides came at a sensitive time for Vietnam - within days of several national anniversaries.

In Vietnam, there appears to be an almost universal feeling, pumped up by state-controlled media, that China's action in the South China Sea amounts to an "incursion" and a challenge to Vietnamese sovereignty.

"If the government gives in to China, it means it is turning its back on the people," Hanoi-based anti-corruption activist Le Hien Duc, 82, told The Straits Times.

"But if the government stands up to China, the people will continue to support it. Otherwise, no one will trust the government anymore."

Accountant Pham Thu Hang, 32, said: "The Vietnamese people will never accept a government that gives in to China... The government will collapse."

But the relationship with China is complex; Beijing has been an ally at times. The Vietnamese may not have been able to defeat the French colonial forces without China's support.

In recent years, despite the dispute over the South China Sea and skirmishes that saw 64 Vietnamese sailors killed in  1988, economic ties have grown. China has become Vietnam's largest trading partner since 2004.

Last Tuesday's attacks on foreign-owned factories affected investors from beyond China, especially Taiwanese. It is imperative for Vietnam to ensure investor confidence, analysts say.

Local media yesterday quoted the Minister of Planning and Investment, Mr Bui Quang Vinh, as saying:  "Vietnam took strong measures to prevent those violent activities from escalating and spreading. Many riot leaders and instigators have been arrested for investigation and they will be punished pursuant to the law."

But the political dilemma is becoming acute as China turns up the heat. On Sunday, it suspended some yet unspecified bilateral programmes and advised its nationals not to travel to Vietnam.

A Xinhua commentary yesterday said "Vietnam has gone too far in its unfounded nationalism". It urged Hanoi to "pause and reflect on its unreasonable hyping of so-called 'territorial disputes' and thus instigation of anti-Chinese sentiment".

A separate Xinhua commentary warned: "It is advisable for the Vietnamese government… not to get stuck in extreme nationalism so as to avoid escalation of violence and complication of the situation in the South China Sea."

Across Vietnam, anti-Chinese emotion is still running high, and ethnic Chinese are keeping out of sight. Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese expatriates have taken to displaying their national flags or hastily made banners to differentiate themselves from the Chinese.

While China's deployment of the rig has prodded awake the sleeping tiger of Vietnamese nationalism, Beijing is also "furious", said Dr Storey. 

And as Beijing flexes its military and economic muscles, Hanoi finds itself in a cleft stick. It must decide whether to ride the tiger, or ignore it and deal with its unpredictability. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg