Vietnam News

From silence to remembrance : Vietnam’s shifting approach to China

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The delicate balancing of honouring fallen soldiers while navigating a strategically important yet tense relationship with a powerful neighbour.

Last month saw official memorials in Vietnam for the 45th anniversary of the Sino-Vietnamese War held in border provinces Quảng Ninh and Hà Giang. Provincial and military officials participated, as well as a former president, Trương Tấn Sang. The prominence accorded the remembrance marked a change in the context of many years of warm relations between Vietnam and China, where the legacy of the war has often been downplayed or even ignored.

The brutal Sino-Vietnamese conflict that erupted in February 1979 cast a long shadow despite its short duration. Lasting only a month, the war shattered the ideological alliance between Vietnam and China, leaving a legacy of deep tension. Beyond the diplomatic fallout, the war profoundly impacted millions of lives and reshaped the regional landscape. Vietnamese border provinces, particularly Lạng Sơn, Cao Bằng and Lào Cai, bore the brunt of the conflict. Towns lay in ruins, only the gutted shells of schools and hospitals stood, while farms and local industries were obliterated. Nearly half of the estimated 3.5 million residents in the warzone lost homes and livelihoods, leaving the region economically crippled.

Vietnam, forced to rely on Soviet military support, felt the economic strain as well, as maintaining a large military presence along the border further hindered its economic development. The war also disrupted China’s economic reform plans and ushered in a decade of strained relations with Vietnam, punctuated by border skirmishes.

For more than a decade afterwards, tensions between the two countries remained high. However, following the death of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s General Secretary Lê Duẩn in 1986 and the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union (1989–90), Vietnam and China prioritised regional stability over ideological differences, leading to the war being largely scrubbed from the official narratives of both countries.

Following the normalisation of relations in 1990, the Vietnamese government maintained a cautious approach for about three decades, often discouraging remembrance of the war. Media coverage and public discussion of the conflict was limited, reflecting the government’s desire for a stable relationship with China and to avoid escalating tensions. The conspicuous absence of the war in official accounts extended to both nations – in China, textbooks make no mention of the conflict whatsoever, while Vietnamese students only encounter a brief reference in their final year of high school education.

However, in recent years, the Vietnamese government has begun to cautiously allow more open discussion and media coverage of the war. This change can be attributed to a confluence of factors.

First, Vietnam’s diversified diplomatic relations and reducing dependence on China. Vietnam has continuously strengthened its relations with world powers in recent decades, establishing a series of comprehensive strategic partnerships including with India, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and, as of this month, Australia. This marks the end of more than three decades of economic dependence on the relationship with neighbouring China that began with the 1990 Chengdu Meeting.

Second, veterans and their families have increasingly demanded public acknowledgement of the sacrifices made during the 1979 war and a proper honouring of fallen soldiers. This pressure has also been echoed by the public and scholars.

Third, the evolving relationship with China has provided Vietnam with more space to address sensitive historical issues without sparking an immediate diplomatic crisis. In addition to commemoration of the Sino-Vietnamese War, this extends to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, illustrated by the recent decision by the Vietnamese government to commemorate the Johnson South Reef skirmish as another apparent shift in policy.

Vietnam asserts its longstanding territorial claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. However, unlike the Philippines, Vietnam avoids officially participating in international lawsuits with China to maintain a stable relationship. This accords with Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy” approach, meant to invoke “strong roots, stout trunk, and flexible branches”. In practice, it allows Vietnam the flexibility not to confront China, yet continuously conduct dredging and landfill work, and strengthen the military infrastructure on the islands it currently controls. It is clear this strategy is intended to deter China, as other countries in the region lack the capability or motivation to occupy these islands.

The memorial commemorations illustrate Vietnam’s delicate balancing act: to honour fallen soldiers and acknowledge the impact of the 1979 war, particularly in border provinces, all without straining relations with China. Calibrating remembrance and diplomacy allows Vietnam to send a message.

By Buu Nguyen – The Interpreter / The Lowy Institute – March 26, 2024

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