RECENT events in the South China Sea have pitted China against its neighbors such as the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. To China, the most worrisome of its new rivals is Vietnam. Ever since the Chinese moved one of its oil rigs into disputed waters shared by both itself and Vietnam, the Vietnamese people have reacted with violence.
The Vietnamese responded to China’s territorial violation by attacking Chinese businesses in Vietnam and ramming Chinese ships in the disputed waters as many as 1,500 times per day. Meanwhile, in Philippine disputed waters, our security forces are left no choice but to observe as Chinese create a land reclamation project in the middle of the ocean.
There’s a lot of bad blood between the Vietnamese and Chinese. To understand why the Vietnamese are being so violent, we have to take a look at the mutual past these two nations shared.
Unlike the Philippines, Vietnamese and Chinese soldiers have met each other in battle three separate times in living memory. In fact, tens of thousands of Vietnamese can claim that they have lost grandfathers, brothers, husbands, uncles or sons to Chinese bullets. The Vietnamese are similar to the Filipinos in that they readily forgive their enemies, just like they did with the French for the annexation of their country, and the Americans for all the atrocities they committed during the Vietnam War (unironically called the American War in Vietnam). However, Vietnamese history shows that the people of Vietnam do not shy away from violence.
The first time the two nations met each other in combat in modern history was in the uninhabited Paracel Islands in 1974. Back then, Vietnam was divided into two parts, democratic South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam. The territorial disputes that we have today already existed back then, and just like today, it was Chinese fishing vessels that started it all.
Chinese armored fishing boats were lying off the coast of Drummond Island in the Paracels to support the People’s Liberation Army soldiers that had occupied the island. The South Vietnamese government in Saigon had only found out about this when they sent a team (that included one American observer) over to the islands for a routine inspection. When the Chinese felt threatened, they sent for reinforcements, while the South Vietnamese did the same.
When South Vietnamese troops landed on the island, they were met with Chinese machine gun fire and death from above in the form of Chinese jet fighters, while supporting fire from Chinese vessels pinned them on the beach. When Vietnam retreated, China annexed the entire island chain. Vietnam protested the annexation at the UN, but China (as a permanent member of the United Nations) blocked any effort by Vietnam to file a case. It should be noted that any permanent member of the UN Security Council has veto powers over the other members.
Five years later, the Chinese and the Vietnamese met again, and this time, the gloves were off. Fearing Vietnamese expansion into Cambodia, and denouncing the Vietnamese deposition of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge government, China decided to go to war with Vietnam, a country that had just ended and won a long, costly fight against the United States. Vietnam had broken ties with China as its main ally in the middle of the Vietnam War, and now saw a friend in the Soviet Union, whom China perceived as a great rival and a threat to its hegemony.
The land border war officially only lasted three weeks and six days, but China sustained about 62,000 casualties according to a Vietnamese estimate, while Vietnam reported 10,000 dead civilians with possibly 30,000 dead soldiers. Interestingly that all seemed to be for nothing, as no territorial changes were made after the war because no one gained any ground. Border skirmishes continued until the late 1980s when Vietnam withdrew all its troops from Cambodia.
However, tensions didn’t end there. There was also an important battle that was fought in the Spratly Islands in 1988. The Chinese intended to put a observation post on Johnson Reef, which was near the Vietnamese zone of control. When the Vietnamese sent a small group of sailors to the area to try to plant the Vietnamese flag, the Chinese opened fire on them. The Vietnamese ships retaliated, and soon it turned into another small battle. The Vietnamese account of the battle claims that Vietnamese soldiers, mostly unarmed, tried to form a circle around the flag to protect it, but were shot and bayoneted by the Chinese soldiers who wanted to remove the flag. When the sand settled, over 70 Vietnamese troops were dead, while a single Chinese soldier suffered a non-fatal injury. Within the year, China had extended its influence over six reefs and atolls in the Spratlys.
Some years later, in 1994, the Chinese tried to do the same thing in Mischief Reef, which we know as “Panganiban Reef.” The Philippine government, wishing to avoid confrontation after hearing what had happened with Vietnam, merely lodged protests against Chinese construction in the reef. Today, the reef is under the control of the People’s Republic of China, and Chinese soldiers patrol Mischief Reef’s permanent military installations.