Thinking Aloud: China-Vietnam Conflict, Nothing New

May 17, 2014 by Darius 

China and Vietnam are currently involved in a significant territorial dispute in the South China Sea:  China is installing an oil drilling platform in Vietnamese territorial waters.

Although many Americans tend to think of Vietnam and China as allies, in fact the Vietnamese-Chinese alliance of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s was a historical anomaly.  Conflict between China and Vietnam goes back thousands of years and a large part of Vietnamese national identity is standing up to China.  Let’s look at a few highlights:

  • In 938 CE, during China’s Tang Dynasty, Vietnam was under Chinese rule.  The Tang was in decline, though, and Vietnamese rebels asserted their independence.  A Chinese force was dispatched to crush the rebels.  Instead, a decisive naval battle, fought on the Bach Dang River, resulted in the Chinese fleet being routed.  Vietnam became formally independent from China in 946.
  • In 1405, the Chinese Ming Dynasty exploited a succession crisis in Vietnam to invade and take over.  In 1416, a Vietnamese landowner-turned-guerrilla began massing an army to resist the Chinese.  By 1424, he had attracted large numbers of followers and was strong enough to engage the Chinese in a pitched battle.  The Vietnamese won, and, the next year, the Ming were forced to leave Vietnam.
  • In 1945, immediately after World War II, Vietnam declared its independence from French Indochina.  Chinese Nationalist forces occupied northern Vietnam, and some Vietnamese nationalists argued for allying with China against France.  Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh is reported as reprimanding pro-Chinese colleagues: “You fools!  Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese stay?  Don’t you remember your history?  The last time the Chinese came, they stayed one thousand years!  The French are foreigners.  …  They may stay for a while, but they will have to go because the white man is finished in Asia.  …  As for me, I prefer to smell French shit for five years, rather than Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”  Nevertheless, after the Communists came to power in China, the Vietnamese accepted Chinese aid in their fight against the French and later Americans.  The alliance lasted less than 25 years.
  • In 1974, China seized control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam by force.  The islands remain in Chinese hands and are near the site of the disputed oil rig.
  • In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody war over a disputed border.  Casualties are disputed, but thousands died on each side.  This war was brought about due to Vietnam’s intervention in toppling the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime in neighboring Cambodia.
  • After the 1979 war, Vietnam’s government launched an intense propaganda campaign against China.  Given that an estimated 70% of Vietnam’s population is under age 35, today most Vietnamese have experienced nothing but tension with China.

Clearly, a lot of bad blood through the centuries between Vietnam and China, even if Americans tend to think of them jointly just because they were allies during the period Americans fought there.  But then again one could argue that Americans always did misunderstand Vietnam, Vietnamese history, and Vietnamese ambitions.

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