Foreign Policy Blogs

In the Shadow of the Dragon: Vietnam

Nguyễn Chí Vịnh

Nguyễn Chí Vịnh

Shawn W Crispin has an interesting article in Asian Times concerning the Vietnamese government’s  latest freedom of speech crackdown that has specifically targeted bloggers who had publicly expressed anti-Chinese sentiment.  Hanoi fears it cannot control the more than two million Vietnamese based blogs, a common source of uncensored news.  While a general fear of the internets power to organized like-minded political dissidents, the author specifically focuses on the Chinese angle:

A crackdown on anti-China sentiment in Vietnam signals factional politicking inside the ruling Communist Party ahead of the next National Congress and has drawn critical attention to the China-aligned General Department II (GD II), a controversial and semi-autonomous intelligence unit tasked with monitoring threats to domestic security.

Vietnamese authorities have in recent weeks arrested and detained a handful of journalists and bloggers who have penned materials critical of China, including articles related to Beijing’s investment in a bauxite mining venture in the geographically strategic Central Highlands region and on the long-lasting controversy over the two sides’ contested claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

The crackdown tracks a growing tendency of authorities to suppress activists and commentators who appeal to notions of Vietnamese nationalism vis-a-vis China, with which Vietnam shares an often antagonistic history. The repressive trend to protect China’s public image began soon after the 2007 Asia Pacific Economic Forum meeting held in Hanoi…

There are competing theories about why Vietnamese authorities have rushed so aggressively to China’s defense. One political risk analyst who requested anonymity believes that Vietnam nearly went bankrupt earlier this year amid a liquidity crisis driven by perilously low foreign currency reserves, and that in desperation it turned to cash-rich China for a secret financial bailout. In return, according to the theory, China was given preferential treatment in the large-scale bauxite mining deal.

Others see the crackdown as a reflection of internal politicking between broadly divided conservative and liberal factions ahead of the Communist Party’s 11th National Congress, where major appointments and policy directions will be decided in early 2011. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, an economic reform champion and the leader of a liberal party faction, is known to have irked certain conservative elements who are now leveraging their connections to China to their political advantage.

“It is widely believed that [GD II] is one of the primary means for China to assert influence in Vietnam,” said Duy Hoang, a senior member of the exiled Viet Tan party. “Beijing’s influence on decision-making in Hanoi is something that is highly sensitive for the regime and strongly opposed in Vietnamese society.”

Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh has long headed GD II, which some critics claim he runs as a personal fiefdom. That’s similar to how his China-aligned father-in-law…

The article goes on to describe just how powerful the GD II is, strongly influencing presidential and legislative actions, instead of being governed by them.  Still, despite the factional fighting, Vietnam has carefully walked a middle path, balancing its relationship with China and the United States.  Previously, this blog has explored the historically volatile relationship between Vietnam and China, and the Obama Administration’s rapprochement with Southeast Asia as signaled during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s last trip to the region.  U.S. Democratic Senatorial support for such an approach was  affirmed by U.S. Senator Jim Webb (Dem. VA) during his own tour of the region.  If the U.S. aggressively follows through, it is quite possible that there will be an intensified battle within the Vietnamese Communist Party fueled by Chinese and American soft power.

Due to geopolitics, it may not be possible to completely move Vietnam into America’s orbit, and it is doubtful that is what the pro-capitalist Vietnamese faction wants.  Any such move will provoke strong nationalist sentiment among the Vietnamese populace that the Communist party can not afford to ignore as it would endanger the parties legitimacy.  But, like other nations in the region, Hanoi has shown interest in a stronger U.S. relationship which will provide it more room to breath.   It is also in America’s security interests to wean Vietnam off Chinese economic support.  It will be interesting to see if the arrest of anti-Chinese activist will continue to serve as a good proxy for the strength of China’s influence over the Vietnamese government.