current affairs

Tensions between Vietnam and China over islands

Only a few days ago Le Thi Tuyet Mai set herself on fire outside Ho Chi Minh City’s reunification palace.

Only a few days ago Le Thi Tuyet Mai set herself on fire outside Ho Chi Minh City’s reunification palace. The burning woman stopped traffic in the city as the police frantically tried to douse the flames.

Before her Self-immolation the sixty-seven year old Buddhist woman surrounded herself with handmade banners denouncing Chinese actions in the South China sea, specifically the illegal oil exploration by Chinese vessels within what she regards to be Vietnamese territorial waters.

The billion dollar rig operated by the China National Offshore Oil Company is engaged in drilling off the Parcel islands. The islands have been administered by the People’s Republic of China since 1974 after they were captured from South Vietnam following a minor sea battle although both Vietnam and Taiwan claim the islands.

Mai’s anger is shared by the Vietnamese people, aggressive nationalist propaganda propagated by state owned media outlets have sparked large scale unrest and anger targeted at ethnic Chinese.

Earlier in the month riots in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi claimed the lives of around twenty Chinese residents and forced the Chinese navy to evacuate over three thousand Chinese from the city.

Long Running Tensions

But these incidents are just the latest incarnation of the longstanding tensions between China and Vietnam. The dispute dates back to the early 1800s where Qing dynasty China and Vietnam both claimed the majority of the islands in the South China Sea and since then both China and Vietnam stand by their claims. Over time the islands changed hands with Vietnam ending up controlling the majority of them.

The islands where the drilling is taking place – the Parcel Islands – were seized by China in the dying days of South Vietnam as Hanoi’s forces followed the Ho Chi Minh trail to take back Saigon.

However this only became an issue at the time of the Sino-Soviet split. Vietnam was before the split part of “World Communism” under Soviet leadership but with the cooperation of Beijing. Thus since the islands were under the control of a close allies both Beijiing and Hanoi were not concerned about them, secure in the knowledge that they would not be used against them.

During the split between the Soviet Union and China the Vietnamese took the side of the Russians, leaving parts of what China and Vietnam consider to be their own territory under each other’s control and liable to be used against them.

Vietnam’s continued allegiance to Moscow and actions it took against the Chinese backed Khmer Rouge angered Beijing. Such actions and Vietnam’s proximity to China acted to contain Mao’s ambitions to lead the Communist world in South East Asia.

Tensions led to the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 where a large but ill equipped and badly led Chinese army was humiliated by Vietnamese local militias and failed to penetrate far into the country.

Border clashes continued until the 90s but the status quo has prevailed on the land.

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