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China: The Giant Awakens : Vietnam

June 15, 1993|Charles P. Wallace

HANOI — On the surface, Vietnam and China are enjoying friendly relations again after a long chill. Only last month, the two Communist neighbors agreed to settle any future disputes peacefully--a vast improvement over the periodic clashes of the past.

Yet, scratch the surface of Sino-Vietnamese detente and you soon uncover festering hostilities that could plunge China and Vietnam into armed conflict again at any moment.

"Last year, (Chinese Premier) Li Peng assured us that China had no intention to fill the vacuum in the region left by the United States' withdrawal from the Philippines," said Hoang Nhu Ly, director of the Vietnamse Foreign Ministry's China department. "But in fact, it intends to step in, causing anxiety and nervousness in the region."

Nowhere is the potential for conflict greater than in the waters of the South China Sea off Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam have historic claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, tiny atolls that many believe sit atop treasure troves of petroleum.

China outraged the Vietnamese last year when it signed an oil exploration agreement with a U.S. firm, Crestone Energy Co., to explore an area just 80 miles from Vietnam's boundaries that Hanoi maintains is on Vietnam's continental shelf.

In another move that Hanoi viewed as a provocation, a Chinese ship carried out seismic surveys last month in an area being explored by three international oil companies under an agreement with the Vietnamese government. The survey ship was eventually chased away by Vietnamese gunboats.

While China dwarfs Vietnam, it has found that its neighbor to the south can be a nasty adversary in a military conflict. In February, 1979, China sent an invasion force into northern Vietnam and captured the town of Lang Son. But the Chinese suffered heavy casualties and withdrew the next month.

The two countries also clashed in the Spratly Islands in 1988, with Chinese forces sinking three Vietnamese ships and killing 72 Vietnamese troops.

In fact, Vietnam and China have historic grievances going back 2,000 years that have flared into warfare from time to time. But during the Vietnam War era, many in the West mistakenly thought China and Vietnam had buried those differences and become ideological allies united in a Communist plot to subdue Asia.

After the war, China became deeply upset at Vietnam's harsh treatment of its ethnic Chinese community, which caused hundreds of thousands to cross the border into China and thousands of others to flee Vietnam by boat.

Relations reached a nadir after Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 drove from power the Khmer Rouge, which earlier was a special protege of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

China's decision to cut off aid to Vietnam also forced Hanoi into the open arms of Moscow, which in return for assistance was given access to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, further antagonizing the Chinese.

The overt hostility subsided in 1989 after Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia and a secret visit to China by Vietnamese party leaders. In November, 1991, the public reconciliation was completed when Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary Do Muoi and Premier Vo Van Kiet were given a warm reception on a state visit to China.

The end of the Cold War has helped resolve many of the simmering conflicts in the region that pitted Communist countries against anti-Communist ones. But it remains to be seen if former Communist allies can also end their historic antagonism and become good neighbors.

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