Negotiating teams from Vietnam and China recently announced a final agreement
for demarcating the two countries' long-contested 1,350-kilometer land border.
While the deal seemed to have resolved one simmering dispute between the
nations, it has deepened rifts between the Vietnamese communist leadership and
some in the military over how best to deal with their larger northern neighbor.
The Hanoi government's handling of the border negotiation has also inflamed
passions among Vietnamese students and intellectuals, many of whom believe that
the ruling Communist
Party now kowtows to Beijing, on which it depends for political support.
Vietnam and China have shared a common frontier for literally thousands of
years. In the late 19th century, the French colonial administration, on behalf
of Vietnam, and the Qing Dynasty, on behalf of China, concluded a formal treaty
delineating the land border. From that treaty, 333 border tablets were
The frontier stayed largely intact until China invaded Vietnam in 1979.
Following the short but bloody war, China withdrew its army but still occupied
strategic points that previously belonged to Vietnam. When the two countries
resumed diplomatic relations in 1991, land and sea boundaries awaited final
Beijing pressed its claims by creating artificial negotiating deadlines and
dubious facts on the ground. In July 1997, Chinese Communist Party chief Jiang
Zemin insisted with his Vietnamese counterpart, Do Muoi, that a border
agreement be reached before the year 2000, and a border agreement was concluded
at the eleventh hour on December 30, 1999.
The Hanoi leadership initially kept the existence of the agreement secret from
the Vietnamese public. Authorities arrested and sentenced to long prison terms
several young democracy activists who blew the whistle on this border agreement
and a treaty demarcating the Gulf of Tonkin the following year.
In the haste to conclude the 1999 border agreement, the precise location of
many of the new border markers was left unresolved and required further
negotiation. As a result, an impatient Beijing once again insisted that the
borderline be resolved once and for all by December 31, 2008, hence the final
agreement that was reached by the two sides just a few hours after the stroke
Vietnamese have long believed Chinese officials secretly shifted many of the
century old border markers. Villagers in Quang Ninh province in northeast
Vietnam tell of markers mysteriously moved at night and the Chinese frontier
approaching closer to populated Vietnamese areas. In some less-inhabited areas
just within Vietnam, there have also been reports of systematic resettlement of
ethnic Chinese or other indigenous people from China.
The border negotiations generated strong differences in opinion between the
Vietnamese Communist Party leadership and some in the military. Reports leaked
in December that the military was opposed to conceding, among several
locations, a strategic river bank known as Bai Tuc Lam at the convergence of
China, Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin.
Soon after Radio New Horizon, an unsanctioned AM broadcaster heard throughout
the country, reported the development, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a
hurried public inspection tour of the provincial district near the river bank,
apparently to demonstrate the party's and government's concern.
Many military veterans, especially those who fought in the 1979 border war,
have vehemently opposed border concessions to China. Tran Anh Kim, a former
colonel and well-known dissident, expressed the frustration of many retired
officers on hearing that the government yielded tracts of land that Vietnamese
defended two decades ago in battle.
Given this mood, Defense Ministry officials responsible for marking the
borderline have expressed in private their uneasiness. Some have gone as far as
acknowledging their shame against the nation and history. Whether they and the
military in general will continue to follow orders in the future is an open
To date, neither Hanoi nor Beijing has disclosed the exact details of the
border agreement or a new official map. In a single interview with state media,
a Vietnamese deputy foreign minister responsible for the negotiations
downplayed Vietnam's loss of major cultural landmarks, including the Ai Nam
gate and the Ban Gioc waterfall.
He rejected accusations on blogs and overseas websites that his government
ceded territory by arguing that the government managed to keep most of the Tuc
Lam River bank - despite the fact that according to historical maps the entire
area had once belonged to Vietnam.
The dilemma for Vietnam's communists is how to preserve the party's control,
but not cede the country's sovereignty. To maintain Beijing's ideological
support, Hanoi consistently tries to appease its northern patron, but China
seldom makes it easy. There are currently four other major territorial disputes
between Vietnam and China, which in turn will affect Vietnam's domestic
politics in the years ahead.
First is the Gulf of Tonkin, which was formally demarcated in a 2000 treaty,
although an official map still has not been published. There have been numerous
incidents in recent years of Chinese naval vessels firing on Vietnamese fishing
boats in the maritime area, in some cases leading to serious loss of life.
Although these fishermen ventured into waters which had sustained them for
generations, the Vietnamese government must have either conceded the fishing
grounds or the Chinese navy invaded Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Whatever
the reason, the sinking of Vietnamese fishing boats by Chinese warships has
gone largely unreported in the official Vietnamese media but has been widely
discussed on private blogs.
Second are the Paracel Islands which China seized from Vietnam on January 19,
1974. The Hanoi government still claims these islands, but intentionally keeps
most of the population in the dark as to who really occupies them. The reason
is that the Paracel Islands had been held by South Vietnam during the war and
communist North Vietnam implicitly supported the invasion of the archipelago by
its communist China allies.
Third are the Spratly Islands, which are claimed in full by Vietnam, China and
Taiwan and in part by other Southeast Asian countries. In late 2007, China went
a step further in formally annexing the Spratlys and the Paracels. While the
Hanoi government publicly protested China's move, it also cracked down on
Vietnamese students and bloggers who demonstrated against China.
Fourth is the Nam Con Son basin, an oil and gas-rich area off the coast of
southern Vietnam and well within the country's legal exclusive economic zone.
Last year, China pressured ExxonMobil to withdraw from an energy concession in
the area granted by Vietnam.
Shortly thereafter, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC)
announced a US$29 billion plan to develop fuel deposits throughout the
contested South China Sea, including the Nam Con Son Basin, which is about 150
miles (249 kilometers) from Vietnam and some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the
southern tip of China's Hainan Island.
Around last year's lunar celebration, Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet
reportedly met with senior commanders in the Danang area, which is the
headquarters for the military region overseeing the contested archipelagos.
Triet had to remind officers to wait for the central government to give orders
before taking their own measures. This development came in response to Chinese
incursions in Vietnamese waters and impatience among some in the military at
the government's timid response.
A decade ago the Hanoi leadership could manage the China relationship without
public criticism. With the spread of the Internet and a growing blogger
movement, the government's ability to shape and control public opinion has
deteriorated significantly. With growing uneasiness in the military and greater
public scrutiny, gone are the days when the politburo of the Vietnamese
Communist Party could cut secret deals with Beijing.
Duy Hoang is a US-based leader of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy
political party active in Vietnam.