Friday, October 7, 2016

Vietnam’s Regional Tensions & Growing Pains

By: Lucas Hakes-Rodriguez
Produced and Edited By: Sam Campbell

Workers at a site in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo via World Bank/Flickr.
The relationship between China and Vietnam is decidedly difficult. That’s putting it lightly.
In 2014, tensions between the two countries over a Chinese national oil company moving a platform into the South China Sea resulted in protests, and then riots, in Vietnam. This conflict in the hotly disputed waters has been ongoing, but it’s recently grown inflamed as China flexes superiority in the South China Sea, and thereby, in many countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones.

But Vietnam is also developing because of China, as much as it would like to think it’s doing so in spite of its hefty neighbor to the North, who consistently provides official development assistance (ODAs) to Vietnam. This assistance is multifaceted, be it in the form of building factories, setting up company branches in-country, or mining its natural resources.

“I do hate what China has done to Vietnam.”

China is investing money in Vietnam so that Vietnam can help grease the big Chinese machine, which has been losing momentum as of recent. 

But the ongoing rout in disputed waters is dampening China’s scarcely-perceived good will towards the people of Vietnam. Many laypersons in Vietnam take issue with the Chinese government’s behavior. 

Phuong Do, a junior majoring in English language teaching methodology in Ho Chi Minh City, said, “One of the most strictly illegal actions that China has carried out in Vietnam may be the violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelago."

“I personally think illegal actions of China are morally unacceptable as they cause [sic] bad impact on Vietnam and China as well.”

This conflict between the two governments is unfortunate, in that the Vietnamese people typically don’t have hang-ups over the Chinese people themselves. “I do hate what China has done to Vietnam,” read a comment from Maily Dao, a software engineer from Hanoi, on the answer crowdsourcing website Quora.

“To be exact, [I hate the actions of] the Chinese government. However, as a person, I don’t hate the Chinese people, [because] most of them seem [sic] to be oblivious to what their government has done to neighboring countries.”

Indeed, China’s campaign of swallowing up nearby resources has relationship statuses set to “complicated.”

The Chinese government’s move toward corralling auxiliary income streams in international waters wouldn’t be so difficult to abhor in the minds and hearts of the Vietnamese if relations with China weren’t so beneficial to their development. 

Vietnam News reported that Chinese investment increased dramatically as of recent, from “$312 million in 2012 . . . [to] $7.9 billion in 2014.” In other words, many Vietnamese people see these money showers as Beijing trying to rub salve on the wound as it tears the skin.

The leniency of the Vietnamese government toward foreign investment in the name of rapid growth is allowing exploitative practices to slip through the cracks.

The rush to modernize Vietnam through foreign investment isn’t just a violation of sovereignty, argued Lee, a 21 year-old from Ho Chi Minh City who requested to have his surname and occupation withheld. 

The Taiwanese materials production company Formosa Plastics caused an uproar in April of 2016, when it illegally released toxic waste into the ocean in central Vietnam. “[The Formosa Company] used [the] sea for discharge.... the sea [became] very [polluted] ... [many] fish ... died … and [the] air [and] land [were polluted as well].”

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (Vietnam) called Formosa’s 2016 toxic waste dump “the most serious environmental incident Vietnam has faced.” The result of the Taiwanese company’s gross negligence was widespread protest of foreign investment. 

This outrage is a sliver of an ongoing trend across the globe: nationalist sentiments causing people to recoil at the destabilizing potential of globalization. Make no mistake. The Formosa Company’s ecological disaster was not a product of China. But the leniency of the Vietnamese government toward foreign investment in the name of rapid growth is allowing exploitative practices to slip through the cracks.

The tumultuous economic environment in Vietnam is not an easily mendable situation. While it’s unique in that it’s growing and developing, in the already globalized age (and at the heart of a region hotly debated over thanks to globalization), Vietnam has its limitations. 

Oil rig in the South China Sea. Photo via Chris/Flickr.
While the Government of Vietnam has a voice over what happens on land, its presence on sea has been riddled with issues as it emerges as a semi-developed state. In 2014, from May to August, Vietnam had conflicts with the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which built oilplatforms in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone proper.

While China played the role of earnest adventurer in its own economic region, many countries decried its actions. Vietnamese citizens were particularly livid while the Vietnamese government sent envoys to disrupt China’s unwelcome harvest. 

As China continues to apply pressure, the Vietnamese people’s sense of entrapment will only rise.

Lee claimed the situation caused his country much “stress,” and the talks with China in the aftermath were “meaningless,” as they did not convince China to do much of anything.

Ultimately, these growing pains are a sign that when relying on a regional power for support, expecting them to stop with the coddling when it’s time to “spread one’s wings” is fanciful thinking. 

In response, Vietnam is looking across the Pacific to Washington, which has been opening up to Hanoi thanks to President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia.” The Obama Administration’s increased challenges towards Chinese claims of regional control has manifested itself across Southeast Asia, as the President just concluded a tour of countries ranging from Laos to Thailand. According to NPR reporter Michael Sullivan, he skipped the Philippines, after Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, called Obama a “son of a whore."

The region in the South China Sea is volatile, as a myriad of nations claim ownership over islands and waters. Vietnam, though still developing, has barriers to break if it hopes to attain economic stability, independence, and congeniality comparable to real players in the global market. 

As China continues to apply pressure, the Vietnamese people’s sense of entrapment will only rise. And as the government continues to allow Chinese money to influence its decisions, it will continue to lose its grasp on an increasingly impatient population and a worldwide economic system that’s indifferent to leaving it behind.

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