Fear and Loathing in Vietnam


Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (right) wave as they leave the Presidential Palace for the Headquarters of the Vietnam Communist Party for official talks in Hanoi on November 5, 2015. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Vietnam this week, the first by a Chinese president in ten years, drew mixed reaction among the Vietnamese.  Beijing has come under criticism in recent months by Hanoi for its dredging of sand to create approximately 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of land on submerged reefs in the South China Sea over the last 18 months.  China’s island building and other efforts to assert its control over the disputed South China Sea—in the face of competing claims from Vietnam, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan—have resulted in Beijing coming under fire for perceived violations of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a declaration of conduct reached in 2002 by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations not only challenge China’s claims of sovereignty, they fear the militarization of these islands, as Chinese companies busy themselves constructing airstrips, radar systems and other potential military facilities on the reclaimed islands.  The Chinese now control two airstrips on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef and are reportedly constructing a third airstrip on Mischief Reef, all of which belong to the Spratly island chain of the South China Sea.

While the international press focus on the paranoia of the U.S. and many Southeast Asian countries over China’s island-building and aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea, here in Vietnam the paranoia runs deeper. Prior to Xi’s visit, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang stated, “as Mr. Xi Jinping claims that the islands have belonged to China since ancient times, we would like to counter-argue that statement.  The Spratlys and Paracels have always belonged to Vietnam, and we have all historical and legal evidence to support our sovereignty.

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