Nationalism trumps ideology, again

Back when communist regimes controlled a third of the globe, it’s not surprising that they found plenty to fight over among themselves. They’re now much more thin on the ground, but it doesn’t seem to have resulted in any improvement in ideological solidarity – certainly not if events this week in South-East Asia are any guide.

According to Fairfax’s Philip Wen, “as many as 20 people” have been killed in anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam, provoked by China’s installation of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, which led to a naval skirmish between the two countries last week. The BBC reports only that “A Chinese worker has been killed and at least 90 other people injured.”

Ironically enough, the factory attacked in the most serious incident was Taiwanese owned, not mainland Chinese. Evidently the protesters are so non-ideological that they don’t even bother about getting the right government, just the right ethnic target. (And perhaps not even that, since South Korean firms are also said to have been in the firing line.)

We all know that there are some unsolved territorial disputes in the waters near China – tiny reefs and islands that once could have been happily ignored, but are increasingly seen as worth contesting. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, still disputed between China and Japan, are the most prominent recent case; there’s also a continuing war of nerves over the Spratlys (claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines), which I wrote about back in 2011.

But the outrage over the Paracels is surprising, because most people thought their status was settled 40 years ago. In January 1974, while the Vietnam War was still in progress, China and South Vietnam fought a brief but full-on naval battle for control of the islands, which resulted in a complete Chinese victory.

Prior to that, North Vietnam had expressed at least qualified support for the Chinese claim, not wanting to antagonise its ally. But after defeating the South in 1975 it succeeded to its territorial claim and refused to recognise Chinese sovereignty. Relations between the two countries deteriorated to the point of fighting a short border war in 1979 and a naval battle in the Spratlys in 1988.

The New York Times has an excellent map of the area showing the competing claims and flashpoints.

A lot has changed in both Vietnam and China in 40 years. Although both remain communist dictatorships, their economies have opened up and modernised and in most ways they are treated as respectable members of the community of nations – in contrast to their occasional ally North Korea.

But events like this week’s raise unsettling questions. As I asked three years ago, “can China adapt itself to the modern, law-governed international system? Or will its government, unfamiliar with the arts of compromise and used to imposing its will by force at home, always be a rogue element?”

No government is immune from this sort of disease; from fetishising tiny amounts of territory and placing prestige ahead of any rational interest. But democracies usually manage to work out their disputes peacefully or to learn to live with them. Authoritarian states don’t have such a good record.

Unlike the Senkaku/Diaoyu contest, however, the Paracels are marked by an overwhelming imbalance of forces. There is no way Vietnam can hope to challenge China militarily: what it’s held for 40 years it will keep.

What seems to be happening this week is that some Vietnamese are venting their frustration at this state of affairs and at the general impotence and unresponsiveness of their own government.


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