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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 14, 2009
China rift opens in Vietnam
By Duy Hoang

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 installed.

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 resolution.

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 of midnight.

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 question.

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.

Sovereign dilemma
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.

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