and Southeast Asia: Historical Interactions. An International Symposium”,
University of Hong Kong, 19-21 July 2001.
Attraction and Repulsion as the Two Contrasting Aspects of the Relations between China and Vietnam
being immediately adjacent to China, the Vietnamese, much more perhaps than
the Burmese and Tai peoples, have always had to take China into account in
their regional relations. During the thousand years between Vietnam’s
first liberation and the beginning of French colonial rule, punctuated by
four major Chinese invasions and the quite lengthy Ming occupation, they had
ample practice in handling these relations. Meanwhile, in the course of its
long domination by China, from the second century BC to the tenth century
AD, Vietnam absorbed Chinese political theories, social organization,
bureaucratic practices, religious beliefs and other cultural attributes. The
prolonged contact with the Chinese language and culture had a profound
influence on Vietnamese social and cultural life, one that continued well
into the nineteenth century. Indeed, Vietnamese rulers of successive
national dynasties continued to derive their cultural inspiration from
China, even as they consolidated the country's independence and unity.
Classical Chinese was established as the official language and the
medium of instruction, and was the vehicle for intellectual expression, and
Vietnamese were schooled in Chinese literary topics as well as in moral
teachings quoted from the Confucian classics. Chinese contributions to
Vietnam cover all aspects of culture and society. Especially, Chinese
influence was most strongly felt at the highest levels of government and
politics: Chinese concepts of law and administration became important
elements of Vietnamese government in the period of independence, for they
contributed to the ability of Vietnamese leaders to consolidate their power
and resist external threats, in particular the Chinese threat. Scholarship
and literature being unavoidably impregnated with the classical heritage of
China; Chinese was the language of administration and learning, as Latin was
in pre-modern Europe. The ability of Vietnamese envoys at the Chinese court
to express themselves fluently in terms of Chinese language and culture was
an important way to demonstrate that Vietnam was a ‘civilized’ country
and did not need the ‘civilizing’ care of Chinese tutelage.
the impact of Chinese civilization on Vietnam was large, the Vietnamese
capacity developed for receiving selected elements of Chinese civilization
was at least as important as the specific items absorbed, since Chinese
influence on Vietnamese society after Vietnam regained its autonomy
continued to be as great as it was under Chinese provincial government.
Vietnamese kings could foster Chinese ways of doing things with more success
than could formerly Chinese governors, for they generally knew how much of
what their people would tolerate.
Moreover, because of their experience under Chinese rule, the Vietnamese
developed a sharp awareness of Chinese intentions. Living in the shadow of a
large empire, they necessarily became expert in the art of survival, and
they grasped Chinese ways of doing things as a means to survive. The
necessity of neutralizing the threat of northern domination by appropriating
the source of northern legitimacy induced them to invest a great deal of
effort in acquiring and maintaining technical, administrative, and cultural
skills. Hence, in the independence period, ruling-class Vietnamese learned
to pose as disciples of classical civilization, thereby overcoming their
‘barbarism’ and removing any pretext for China to exercise its
‘civilizing’ mission in their land.
Vietnamese, however, retained their own language and, with it, memories of
their pre-Chinese civilization. The preservation of the Vietnamese language
is extremely noteworthy: it means that whatever the Chinese did in Vietnam
was conditioned by a cultural realm that remained distinct and separate from
the Chinese sphere of thought. What the Vietnamese borrowed from China was
bent through the prism of their own language and culture. Thus, despite the
common Confucian heritage, it would be wrong to think that the moods which
governed intellectual life in China and Vietnam were ever very alike. They
were sometimes quite dissimilar as the environments, and their dissimilarity
helped to limit Vietnam’s Sinicization.
there then significant differences between Vietnamese and Chinese
institutions and did such differences result at least partially from a
self-conception on the part of Vietnamese thinkers, one consciously held
and pursued? The great question has been how the Vietnamese people could
benefit from Chinese culture without becoming themselves Chinese. Century
after century, the obvious Vietnamese attraction to Chinese political ideas,
social practices, literary fashions and technology has had to reconcile
itself somehow with a truly passionate determination to preserve Vietnam’s
independence. Vietnam’s cultural borrowing from China never diminished; on
the contrary, the various dynasties of independent Vietnam, between 1010 and
1885, increased it. In reality, aware of China’s economic and scientific
advance, Vietnamese rulers did not want to deprive themselves of access to
Chinese innovations, and used the cultural bridges which had already been
built between the two countries to participate in the Chinese world.
class of literati issued thus from the established official educational
structure were the staunch supporters of an official literature tied to the
Confucian moral conception of society, which came to dominate both the
literary and the historical writing of Vietnam. With its rich humanism and
its love of book-learning, Confucianism in particular helped give Vietnam a
history-conscious scholar class, one having great assurance that the
transcendental principles of human ethics could be understood by reading
and writing history.
cultural borrowing was even too comprehensive to be traced entirely to
conscious strategic calculations. The borrowing seemed to become almost
unnecessary submissive at times. For example, the 19th century
Nguyễn emperors called themselves ‘Sons of Heaven’ (Thiên-tử
天子), which implied equality with the emperor of
China. They privately referred to their country as ‘the imperial south’
(Ðại Nam 大南).
Yet, after 1802, they built a new capital city at Huế, in central
Vietnam, which was painstakingly planned to be a replica of the Chinese
capital city of Beijing. Their imitativeness of things Chinese was also
revealed in their law code, a faithful copy of the law code of China.
Such imitativeness accompanied Vietnam’s publicly accepted status as a
‘vassal’ of China in the traditional Chinese diplomatic system, the
tributary system. And the authority of Chinese cultural standards was so
unquestioned within its system that Vietnamese courts persevered in
choosing as their envoys to China their most accomplished classical poets or
philosophers, in order to prove to the Chinese that Vietnamese could
worthily master Confucian culture too.
major traditional institutions – the monarchy, the bureaucracy, the law
code, and even the family – all resembled counterpart institutions in
China. Yet, why was pre-modern Vietnam not ever merely a ‘little
China’? The answer seems to have been that the practical Confucian
humanism which had spread to Vietnam as part of Chinese classical
civilization turned the Vietnamese upper class into an elite conscious of
having a mission independent of that of Chinese rulers.
In fact, the study of history, which Chinese classical values encouraged,
inevitably directed Vietnamese attention to the wrongs they thought they had
suffered at Chinese hands. Vietnamese intellectuals lived with the quasi
certainty of a rich cultural continuity thought to have been lost or
destroyed. Lê Quý Ðôn, a gifted philosopher and historian of the 18th
century, produced an inventory of lost Vietnamese books and archives, many
of which had been destroyed or carried away by Chinese invaders. This was
‘injustice collecting’ on a formidable scale: Vietnam’s book-loving
mandarins had a most meticulous preserved memory of a lost, or stolen,
with China and exposure to Chinese cultural imperialism had thus paradoxically
their importance in shaping Vietnamese self-identity. So familiar were
educated Vietnamese with Chinese literary materials that Chinese
literature even supplied diplomatic weaponry against the Chinese
The Vietnamese court had plenty of occasions for reminding the Northern
court of the Chinese dogma that an ideal ruler should show a benign attitude
towards distant people. Vietnamese memorials to China often alluded to the
dogma as an argument for dissuading the Chinese emperors from infringing on
Vietnamese sovereignty. On the other hand, one of the fundamental tasks
assigned to Vietnamese traditional historiography had been to define the
notion of an absolutely distinct Vietnamese kingdom, and of real as well as
mythical frontiers intended to ward off forever China’s wish to
resuscitate any legitimate pretension to interference. Commissioned by the
king Trần Thánh-tông to compile a history of Ðại-Việt (completed
in 1272), the historian Lê Văn Hưu assembled several Chinese
philosophical and historical fragments, some of which he took out of their
original context, to demonstrate the antiquity of the Vietnamese imperial
institution, which Trần Thái-tông and his heir were then defending
against Kubilai Khan. The Chinese fragments were appropriated to defend
the Vietnamese ruler’s independent status in the face of Chinese imperial
pretensions; they were tailored to fit into Vietnamese history and to show
that Vietnam’s tributary relationship with China was a fiction.
Lê Văn Hưu began precisely his work with the year 207 BC and the
accomplishment of the founder of the Nam Việt [Nanyue] state,
Triệu Ðà [Zhao Tuo], the first according to him to have established
a southern empire that could take its place alongside the northern one:
“Triệu Vũ-đế [Zhao Wu-di],
who developed the territory of our Việt realm, proclaiming himself
emperor to stand up to the Han… was the first to initiate the imperial
institution in our country. His achievement could be described as immense.
The later sovereigns of Việt may imitate Triệu Vũ-đế
in their task of buttressing the frontiers and strengthening the military
and political organization. It is by employing virtue in their relations
with the neighbouring
countries and benevolence for the preservation of their throne that they
will succeed in protecting durably the national territory, since the
northern men will have no reason to come and pry into their affairs.”
this way, Lê
Văn Hưu emphasized
the legal and historical basis of Vietnamese independence. Zhao Tuo, the
southern ruler resisting successfully northern aggression, became the
sovereign legitimised by local cultural symbols before the Chinese
provincial regime was introduced. Thus, he represented the end of the
pre-Chinese indigenous royal succession; he also represented the beginning
of imperial succession in an age when the concept of kingship became more
firmly associated with the ability to resist Chinese belligerence.
Overlooking the fact that Zhao Tuo was not Vietnamese by birth, Vietnamese
historians recognized in him the spirit of their political survival and on
that account claimed him as their own.
Lê Văn Hưu’s choice of Triệu Ðà’s Nam Việt as
the starting point for Vietnamese history is thus directly related to his
emphasis on ‘Vietnam’s equality’ with China.
Likewise, another work composed at the end of the
Trần dynasty, Việt
Sử Lược [Summary of Viet History], excluded Vietnam from the
area controlled by the ancient wise emperors of China, and consequently
from the civilizing influences of what was considered in China as the golden
age. The intention was to prove that the ancestors of the Vietnamese
country, the creators of the Văn-lang kingdom
flourishing with its ‘pure, simple customs’ long before there could be
any question of Chinese influence,
were of equal status to the founder kings of China. In so far as
Lạc-long-quân, Văn-lang’s first sovereign, was the Vietnamese
equivalent of Huang-di, his cultural innovations were comparable with those
of the latter. To say that Văn-lang’s very ancient civilization
presented similarities with China’s distant antiquity was in fact tantamount
to assert the equality between North and South, by means of the very
political and cultural criteria put forward by the Chinese to proclaim their
superiority over every other people.
This identification of Vietnam with a cultured
nation [văn hiến chi bang,
xian zhi bang] like China was to be repeated later in the early 15th
century by Nguyễn Trãi, when he wrote in his proclamation Bình Ngô Ðại Cáo [Great Proclamation about the
Pacification of the Chinese] to announce the defeat of the Ming driven out
of the country after the failure of their attempted take-over:
From the moment
mountains and rivers have demarcated territories,
The customs of the
South should be different from those of the North.
The Triệu, Ðinh,
Lý and Trần have successively built this country,
Quite like the Han,
Tang, Song and Yuan, each one is sovereign in his own realm.
his proclamation, Nguyễn Trãi used aspects of the Chinese tradition
to point out the rightful thwarting of Ming Chinese aims. For him, Sinic
institutions were not ‘Chinese’ and Vietnam was not an outside entity
imitating them at all.
His was an effort to substantiate Vietnamese independence and equality. Like
other Vietnamese scholars, he believed that ancient Chinese classical
writing exemplified universal and not simply Chinese patterns of experience.
In some ways, these scholars equated the devices of literate Confucianism
with a sort of technology, the most advanced technology for social control
and administration available. Consequently, they did not hesitate to invoke
Chinese literary passages as rhetorical flourishes to illustrate their lofty
status in the world and to ratify whatever they themselves had to say. In
other words, Chinese cultural models remained synonymous with ‘civilization’,
as Vietnamese literati never ceased to define Vietnamese culture so as to
distinguish it clearly from that of their Southeast Asian neighbours,
endeavouring persistently to increase popular awareness of Confucian norms
and to deepen the association between Vietnamese ethnicity and
Confucianism. Because of this cultural alignment, Vietnamese scholars in the
past tended to stress considerably the important role of their country as an
intermediary in technology transfers between China and Southeast Asia. Lê
Quý Ðôn for one stated categorically that the material produce of Vietnam
was superior to China's in everything from flowers and fruits to vegetables.
Above all, he pointed out that different types of early ripening rice, all
originating in Champa, had been transmitted first to Vietnam and only
later to China. As Alexander Woodside has suggested, by making the
international spread of Cham rice in the eleventh century into a major theme
for Vietnamese readers some seven centuries later, “Lê Quý Ðôn was
inviting them to reimagine the whole economic field of the South China sea
away from China and in favour of Indochina.”
It is evident that Lê Quý Ðôn's aim was not only to shrink the
importance of China, but also to make the data from regional agricultural
growth impart a far more multi‑dimensional consciousness of Vietnamese
to the Vietnamese elite of the 1700s and early 1800s, the Chinese empire had
failed to perfect the ideal community of the Confucian philosophers. In
Vietnamese eyes, it appeared indeed as a huge urban commercial empire whose
dishonest rulers spoke in many tongues. Vietnam, on the contrary, being less
commercially corrupted and smaller, was closer to the size of the
city-states of the era of Confucius, and potentially the more proper
environment for Confucian values.
Consequently, the belief of the Vietnamese ruler was that one did not have
to be ‘Chinese’ to create a virtuous state such as the states Confucius
had admired. This explains why the Nguyễn chronicles described the
Vietnamese ruler in the nineteenth century as the true custodian of
Confucian orthodoxy, culturally superior to the Qing, ‘barbarian’
because they were Manchu.
claims to suzerainty, never abandoned, and unremitting Vietnamese resistance
to these claims, justify therefore the Vietnamese stubborn conviction that
Vietnam and China, contrary to Chinese dogma, enjoyed comparable sovereignty.
This conviction was explicitly formulated as a repudiation of the Chinese
pretension to unique and central status in the world.
In his preamble to the Vietnamese annals, the fifteenth-century
historiographer Ngô Sĩ Liên argued that the Việt people sprang
from Shen-nong, one of China’s legendary ‘divine rulers’, but in a
hereditary line quite distinct from the Chinese. This contributed to the
ideal image of the relationship of the Vietnamese to the Chinese: dependent
on the same sources, the same roots, yet with an independent history that
implicitly denied to China the right of political hegemony. As a corollary,
the Vietnamese rulers came to imagine the world in terms of ‘north’ and
‘south’, asserting that since the emancipation of their kingdom from
Chinese dominion they had been continually upholding a southern imperial
tradition dating back to ancient times, and repudiating China’s claim to
the unique central position in the universe.
Thence, they in their turn would endeavour
to force on their neighbours
in Southeast Asia their own version of a world where they too were to occupy
the predominant rank.
But, if the Vietnamese succeeded in maintaining
their independence over the centuries in spite of the Chinese emperors’
persistent endeavours to enforce their authority over the country, it was largely because
China had come to understand that whatever she coveted in Vietnam it did not
merit the price demanded for it. Hence, the tributary relationship was
maintained, which from the Chinese standpoint meant the ties were those of
suzerain and vassal, from the Vietnamese of independent, ‘sovereign’ (though
in power terms unequal) states. Strict observance of the rules and
courtesies of this relationship on the Vietnamese side contributed to
peaceful coexistence. However, the relations determined by the tributary
system were not relations between two equal states, but resulted from a
complex arrangement that, even though not specifically expressed by any
treaty, was nonetheless based on personal ties between the sovereigns of the
two countries. Such an understanding implied the tacit agreement by China as
the suzerain to lend assistance to her vassal in case of need, and the
tacit acceptance by the latter of certain ritual obligations, above all the
duty of sending periodical tribute to the Chinese court. The tributary
status was not granted to Vietnam as a state, but to its sovereign who in
principle obtained his legitimacy from the investiture by the Chinese
emperor. Through this investiture, the Chinese Son of Heaven solemnly
declared the one on whom he bestowed the title of ‘prince of the state of
Annam’ worthy through his loyalty and piety of governing his country. The
investiture, therefore, created dependency of some sort, but
simultaneously contributed to the establishment of the legitimacy of the
Vietnamese monarch with the help of the great neighbouring
Originating in the conquests of Han times,
Chinese suzerainty, right down to the nineteenth century, was asserted in
regard to Vietnamese territory rather than the Vietnamese people. It
pertained not only to the traditionally ethnocentric and moralistic view
of China as master of tian xia (天下
under heaven), but it was also quite definite in north Vietnam, which had
formed part of the ling tu 領土
or ‘contiguous land’ of the Han and the Tang.
Following Vietnam’s independence, Chinese intervention focused mainly on
restoring Vietnamese princes deposed by their subjects. Indeed, the issue
of legitimacy persisted as a Chinese concern right through to the modern
period. Even the action of the Yong-le Emperor in 1407 was intended to take
a disorderly vassal in hand, when its ruler appealed for help, and to put it
firmly in order once and for all. During the reign of the Qing dynasty, Vietnam
had been one of the three or four states most faithful in presenting tribute
to the court in Peking. And on several occasions imperial arms had been sent
to Vietnamese territory, at the request of the Vietnamese sovereign, to
suppress local bandits. Until the nineteenth century, these facts,
together with the long historical relationship and cultural and racial ties,
were considered by the Chinese as sufficient proof of China’s
ineffaceable suzerainty in Vietnam.
The tributary system, nevertheless, satisfied
the fundamental interests of the two sides. For China, it constituted a
clever and economical means of action to retain within the orbit of her
influence an adjoining country that she did not deem practical to control
directly. It allowed her on the other hand to have at her disposal a
respectful vassal that would assist her in maintaining social order on her
southern flank. For their part, the sovereigns of Vietnam were clearly aware
of the necessity for them to accept their tributary status, in order to
forestall China’s direct interference in their internal affairs. Moreover,
it was in the interest of the Vietnamese court to forfeit a part of its
sovereignty in return for the guarantee that in the event of a revolt of its
own subjects it would be able to enjoy China’s support – for China would
be held morally responsible for the protection of the legitimate dynasty
she had recognized –, and that in peacetime it would not run the risk of
seeing the Chinese intervene to conquer and to directly rule the country.
Besides, the Vietnamese governing elite were not reluctant to consent to
this vassalage in so far as it enabled them to benefit from the ensuing
material and cultural benefits: the embassies sent to the Chinese court
provided the opportunity to bring back literary and scientific books, not to
mention the profits stemming from a little sideline trading.
Yet, deliberate endeavours had been undertaken by the Vietnamese sovereigns to neutralize the
restraining effects of a tributary system that they could not throw off
openly. Beginning with the Trần (1226-1400), the Vietnamese rulers had
taken to use false names [giả húy,
jia hui] in their
diplomatic correspondence with the Chinese court. The piece of trickery
imagined by Quang-Trung when sending in 1790 a double to Peking to receive
investiture in his place aimed at the same objective.
In each case, it mattered less for the Vietnamese rulers to deceive the
Chinese court than to find a subterfuge to invalidate, in the eyes of their
own subjects, the investiture edict sent by the Chinese emperor: since the
edict conferred investiture on a false entity, it would be as a result
null and void. In that way, the independence of the Vietnamese monarch could
appear not to be in the least affected by his subjection.
Anyway, the Vietnamese were fully aware of borrowing mainly from the culture of one civilization, instead of many. They remained so until French colonial domination came to force Vietnam to turn its back on Chinese tradition and open up to Western culture. The French presence interrupted also the trend of social assimilation into the local order of those who came to Vietnam from China as traders and refugees. Until then, Chinese settlers in Vietnam accommodated themselves to the indigenous political order, and were usually accepted provided they passed the ‘cultural’ tests. After the imposition of French rule, the long-term relationship of Chinese settlers to the cultural milieu would change as a result of the combination of French colonial policy and large concentrations of working-class immigrants: not only did these Chinese not assimilate, but they made it more difficult for others who came after them to assimilate.
the success of the Communist revolution in China in 1949, the situation
appeared transformed. Not only had there been close relations between leaders
and cadres in both Chinese and Vietnamese parties,
but the philosophy in which the Indochinese Communist Party had been brought
up laid particular emphasis on the principle of ‘proletarian
internationalism’ and the idea of ‘the unity of fraternal parties’,
compared metaphorically to ‘lips and teeth’. Recent
publications have in particular stressed the role of the Chinese in planning
and even commanding military campaigns during the wars waged by the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam against France and the United States.
As a matter of fact, given the close relations between Vietnamese and
Chinese at that time and the Chinese military experience, Vietnamese leaders
seemed to have given the Chinese wide rights to involve in and influence the
decision taking process during the war. The new quality of the
Chinese-Vietnamese relationship was expressed in the use of the term “the
Northern Feudalists” to refer to the Chinese when invading Vietnam. Therefore,
the emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict in the late 1950s and its eruption
in 1960 seemed a terrible disturbance of the natural order. All the same,
for the next fifteen years, while the American war developed and continued
through its various phases, the Vietnamese skilfully managed the dual
relationship, receiving essential aid from the Soviet Union and the European
socialist bloc on the one hand and the People’s Republic of China on the
effectively a relationship traditionally expressed in terms of vassalage
into one in terms of theoretical equality requires nevertheless a large
adjustment in the view each nation has historically had of the other. For
that matter, Chinese pressure of any kind is instinctively felt by the
Vietnamese as a threat to their national survival. On the other hand, the
assertion by Vietnam of its national interests other than in deference to
Chinese policies is instinctively felt by the Chinese as impertinence
bordering on insubordination. Perhaps an inevitable result of the difference
in size between the two countries, these feelings still lie at the root of
Sino-Vietnamese relations today as they did one or two thousand years ago.
The various immediate occasions of the breakdown of peaceful relations in
1978 (the renewal of old tensions along the frontier, Vietnamese
intervention to assist the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea)
were of less importance perhaps than the Chinese dislike of the idea of a
genuinely independent Vietnam. Sino-Vietnam relations, which had been
deteriorating since China cut off aid in mid-1978 and since the
Soviet-Vietnam treaty was signed in November that year reached near-breaking
point in the wake of the Chinese invasion, a reversion to the former
policies of the “Northern Feudalists”.
This 28-days attack of and withdrawal from Vietnam and related developments,
such as the outpouring of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam, radically
altered the balance of forces on China’s southern borders. The war with
Vietnam dealt also a crushing blow to any idealist in Beijing who still
believed in the validity of ‘proletarian internationalism’.
relations were not broken, however. Besides, the Soviet Union's collapse soon gave
Hanoi no choice but to mend its ties with Beijing. Certainly, apprehension
and disagreement persisted about China's intentions. The deep historical
mistrust between the two countries would not easily dissipate. Whereas
Vietnamese conservatives, especially in the military, would value China as
the last important remaining communist ally, reformers would point to the
threat that China could pose in a decade or two as it builds up its military
strength, especially the navy. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese have actively
sought to improve and fully normalize relations through a series of
high-level visits and accords. Vietnam’s relations with China appeared
warmer in 1989, a decade after Chinese troops attacked northern Vietnam to
‘teach Vietnam a lesson’ for invading Cambodia. A
flourishing border trade has then resumed. Customers from all over Vietnam come to the border town
of Ðồng Ðăng to haggle with private merchants for Chinese-made
fans, thermos flasks, bicycles, tape recorders, crockery, beer and other
consumer goods. Chinese traders are
most interested in buying seafood, exotic animals for traditional medicines,
bronze, cloth, vegetables, meat and rice. For its part, Vietnam has abandoned its earlier
discriminatory policies against the country’s ethnic Chinese, which
prompted Beijing’s harsh denunciation of its former ally in 1978.
Vietnamese officials readily admitted that they made mistakes in the March
1978 ‘socialist transformation’ campaign to seize private industry and
trade in the former capitalist south – about half of which was owned by
be sure, China has become the single regional power whose posture and policy
must be taken into account in every issue. China’s place in the power
balance of Asia may be that of a new Middle Kingdom, a modern version of
which began to take shape clearly as Beijing sought to reclaim China’s
historical position as the central power of Asia. In
international relations, military strength, internal politics, economic
progress and swelling nationalism, China surges to the front as the Asian
power with which all others must reckon. The concept of China as the predominant power in Asia has thus come back
in force, so that no major decision could be made without Beijing’s
that it was imperative for Beijing to have ‘good relations with
surrounding countries’, Jiang Zemin was quoted by Xinhua, the Chinese
national news agency, as
saying in reference to the Sino-Vietnamese 1979 conflict that ‘certain remaining
historical matters’ could be properly settled so long as the two sides
were far-sighted, understood each other and consulted in a fair and
reasonable way. Under
these circumstances, the main force shaping Vietnam’s foreign policy has
to be China. In recent years, turning to China as a source of ideological succour and legitimisation,
Vietnamese Communist party leaders make one after another their pilgrimages
to Beijing, where they pledge their ideological affinities with their
Chinese counterparts, spinning up their Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and
pledging to take Sino-Vietnamese relations to ‘a higher plane’.
8 December 1997, Li Ruihuan, member of the Standing Committee of the Communist
Party of China’s Central Committee Political Bureau and chairman of the
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, declared during his
visit to Vietnam: “China and Vietnam are joined by common mountains and
rivers, and peoples of the two countries share traditional friendship
dating back to ancient times. During the revolutionary struggle over a
long period, the Chinese and Vietnamese peoples have supported and helped
each other; shared weal and woe; fought side by side; and forged a profound
revolutionary comradeship. In the past years, China and Vietnam have made
considerable progress in their good-neighbourly
and friendly co-operative relationship. China and Vietnam share common
goals and tasks as well as common difficulties and problems…” To this,
Vietnamese President Trần Ðức Lương answered:
“Vietnam attaches great importance to the traditional friendly relations
with China, and will work wholeheartedly with the Chinese side to carry
the comprehensive and friendly co-operative relations into the 21st
century.” Ever since, the official
discourse emphasizes the very important common interest that both China
and Vietnam share in the successful development of their ‘socialist market
economies’. They stand alone among the five remaining socialist states as
most likely to succeed in this ideological endeavour. The journey to China
to study the applicability of Chinese market socialist reforms to Vietnam is
therefore deemed to be indispensable. Four basic similarities between
reforms in China and Vietnam are enumerated: the pursuance of socialism
while taking into account the specific conditions of each country;
renovation and reform as the basis for boosting economic development and
stabilizing the political situation; the mobilization of domestic
resources while making use of international cooperation; and the leadership
of the communist party.
speaking before the Vietnamese National Assembly on 28 November 1998,
Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm could declare:
“Clearly realizing the importance of Vietnam-China relations, we have
actively and positively accelerated friendship and cooperative relations
with the People's Republic of China in many sectors.
We have also maintained all annual high-level meetings. The most
prominent event this year was the recent official friendship visit to
China by Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải in October.
The exchange of visits between various sectors and localities in the
two countries continues to develop actively.
In the first nine months of this year alone, 80 visits were exchanged
by delegations from both sides at all levels. We have actively suggested
practical measures to enhance the efficiency of economic, trade, and
investment cooperation and an increase in trade volume. We are striving to
bring the volume of bilateral trade to $2 billion by the year 2000.
Recent agreements on border trade, legal assistance, and consular
services will help restore order in the management of the border areas. We
have tried to speed up the process of negotiations for the signing of the
agreement on the land border and the agreement on the delineation of the
Tonkin Gulf by the year 2000 in conformity with a consensus reached by
high-level leaders of the two countries. Generally speaking, significant
progress has been recorded in all negotiations.”
land border issues between Vietnam and China, negotiations have been more
tedious than strategic, involving hundreds of points of disagreement
measuring no more than a few hundred metres in any instance and stemming
from a century old map. Nevertheless, the dispute over the land border
seemed easily resolved, and in December 1999, Vietnam and China reached a
historic agreement on their land boundary. One year after, another agreement
resolved the Gulf of Tonkin question by drawing the equidistant line between
Vietnam and Hainan Island. However, the two sides remained far apart when it
comes to the two South China Sea archipelagos where they have competing
claims – the Spratly and Paracel island chains. These two disputed island
groups off the coast of Vietnam remain potential flashpoints in
Sino-Vietnamese relations. The Spratlys (Nansha for the Chinese), the
‘isles of dangerous places’, as they were called by fourteenth century
sailors, are important because of their potential oil deposits, rich fishing
fields and their strategic position alongside the main shipping lanes
through the South China Sea. China repeatedly reasserts what it calls its
‘indisputable sovereignty’ since the Tang dynasty over the Spratlys.
Vietnam lays its claims to French-era maps and to archaeological proof (in
particular Vietnamese ceramics dating to the 13th century).
Partly the dispute is a matter of definition. What is actually important is
the image these islands represent, symbolically. If relations with China
have been improving steadily in the past decade since normalization of
relations, they are anything but conciliatory when it comes to the Spratlys.
territorial disputes notwithstanding, in June 2000, twenty-one years after
thousands of Chinese soldiers poured into Vietnam to teach it a lesson for
its Christmas 1978 invasion of Cambodia, 16 of Vietnam's senior-most
officials assembled in China for an unpublicised lesson of a very different
kind – how to reform a socialist economy without losing party control. The
development is an extraordinary one. With the economy in the doldrums and
the Vietnamese Communist Party obsessed with ensuring control, Hanoi
appears to seek refuge in closer ties with its oldest enemy. Hosted by Chinese
politburo member Li Tingyie, the Vietnamese delegates assembled on June 13
for a two-day ‘theoretical seminar’, after which they were due to travel
to southwest China for a field session on economic reform. As the meeting
started, Beijing announced it was giving Vietnam $55 million to upgrade
two Chinese-built steel and fertilizer plants. The meeting is one of many
signs of rapprochement, if not of Vietnam’s reversion to one of its
historic roles, in which it is the pupil and China the teacher. This is
termed in official jargon as friendship based on “16 golden words”,
which Vietnam's Communist Party newspaper Nhân Dân says
tactical moves lie under this growing warmth after a period of strife
between the two countries. “Remember, after defeating the Chinese, we
always sent tribute,” says a Vietnamese official about Hanoi's recent
kowtowing. Yet, some in Vietnam doubt the wisdom behind this. Trần
Bạch Ðằng, a veteran communist leader in Ho Chi Minh City,
states bluntly that China is waging economic war against Vietnam by
flooding its market with cheap goods.
Talking about Vietnam's territorial dispute with China in the South China
Sea, he says: “China is a threat not only to Vietnam but to the world.
China has attacked all its neighbours – India, Vietnam and Russia.”
Despite their sharing in common socialist conceptions, geographic proximity,
and normalized ties, the two countries remain in effect wary of each other.
and national concern govern therefore the normalization and the development
of Sino-Vietnamese relations. China and Vietnam are witnessing a new
situation where opportunities and challenges coexist. As both countries are
now sharing a common bond – communist ideology, economic reform, and
integration within the global economy – they present today striking
similarities. Vietnam's leaders want especially to know how the Chinese Communist Party
weighed the risks to one-party rule from the WTO deal, and how it was sold
to the Chinese people. They want to learn about how to ensure communist rule
would not be undermined by opening up to the world economy.
Just like in China, the anti-corruption campaign aims first at reinforcing
the political foundation of a group in power. Chinese and Vietnamese
ideologists agree to moralize the image of their respective parties in order
to resist shocks from outside. And like the Chinese also, the Vietnamese
leaders find a foreign enemy expedient, and if they do not have one, they
invent one: the long-standing allegation of ‘foreign plots’ is not one
that can be proven, but serves a good purpose, so the Hanoi regime continues
its campaign against them. For that
matter, China’s suppression of the Falun Gong religious sect is no doubt
secretly applauded by Vietnam’s leaders and serves to reinforce repressive
tendencies against any group that attempts to operate independently of state
authority. China’s views on human rights and religious freedom represent a
powerful counter to Western pressures and heavily reinforce official
so, it remains that Vietnam’s fundamental objective is to avoid depending
too much on China. The Asian crisis has modified Vietnam’s position in its
regional space. Seeking
out equidistance between Southeast Asia and China, the Vietnamese government,
taking up a strategic and political approach insofar as its foreign
relations are concerned, reverses to a course of action tending to defend
its national interests. In fact, Vietnam’s entry into the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations in 1995 came about largely from political
considerations: the belief is that the ancient frictions between Vietnam and
China are less likely to burst into open conflict once Vietnam belongs to
ASEAN, a group with some importance to China. Meanwhile, in the economic
field, Vietnam competes with China on a range of export items from shoes to
textiles, and local businessmen have been aghast at the prospect of facing
such a competitive giant to the north once China's WTO reform commitments
kick in. The concern is that Chinese goods, which are already widely sold in
Vietnam, might flood in once China's economy steps up a gear. For the time
being, although Hanoi clearly has mixed feelings about Chinese investment in
Vietnam, it would like to see the smuggling of Chinese goods stopped at the
Thus, Vietnam draws upon ideological community to reach bilateral relations that would avert open conflict, while recognizing de facto China’s superior international status in return for Chinese commitments to security and fair trade. All things considered, ho wever, ideological similarities still do not seem to be sufficient in prevailing over the long history of animosity and distrust that China and Vietnam have in common.
Keith W. Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1983, p. 298.
Keith W. Taylor, op. cit., p. 299.
Cf. Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model. Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 1971, 358 p.
Alexander Woodside, “Vietnamese History: Confucianism, Colonialism,
and the Struggle for Independence”,
The Vietnam Forum, 11 (Winter-Spring 1988), p. 29.
Alexander Woodside, “Conceptions of Change and of Human Responsibility
for Change in Late Traditional Vietnam”, Moral Order and the
Question of Change: Essays on Southeast Asian Thought, David K.
Wyatt & Alexander Woodside ed. New Haven, Yale Univ. Southeast Asian
Studies, 1982, pp. 104-150.
O. W. Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian
Perspectives. Ithaca, SEAP, 1999, p. 63.
Ibid., p. 86.
Đại Việt Sử
Ký Toàn Thư. Ngoại Kỷ [The complete historical
record of Dai Viêt. Preliminary part], Hanoi, 1983, t. I, p. 134. See
also O. W. Wolters, “Historians and emperors in Vietnam and
China: Comments arising out of Lê Van Huu’s History, presented to the
Trân court in 1272”, Perceptions
of the Past in Southeast Asia, A. Reid & D. Marr ed., Singapore,
Heinemann, 1979, pp. 69-89.
Keith W. Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1983, p. 293.
Transl. Trần Quốc Vượng, Việt
Sử Lược, Hanoi, NXB Văn Sử ñịa,
1960, 222 p.
 Quoted in Nguyên Thê Anh, “La frontière sino-vietnamienne du XIe au XVIIe siècle”, Les frontières du Viêtnam, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1989, p. 66.
Stephen O’Harrow, “Nguyen Trai’s Binh Ngo Dai Cao 平吳大誥
1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity”, Journal
of Southeast Asian Studies, 10-1 (March 1979), p. 174.
Alexander Woodside, “The Relationship between Political Theory and
Economic Growth in Vietnam, 17501840”, The Last Stand of Asian
Autonomies. Responses to Modernity in the Diverse States of Southeast
Asia and Korea, 1750‑1900, A. Reid ed., Houndmills, Macmillan
Press, 1997, pp. 256‑257.
Alexander Woodside, “The Relationship between Political Theory and
Economic Growth in Vietnam, 1750-1840”, The Last Stand of Asian
Autonomies, Anthony Reid ed. Houndmills, Macmillan, 1997, p.248.
O. W. Wolters, “Historians and emperors in Vietnam and China”, art.
cit., pp. 69-89.
Đại Việt Sử
Ký Toàn Thư, Hanoi, t. I, 1983, p. 99.
 Le Ðai Viêt et ses voisins, Nguyễn Thế Anh ed. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1990, p. iii.
See Alexander Woodside, Vietnam
and the Chinese model, Cambridge, Harvard U.P., 1971, pp. 234-246.
In the later half of the 19th century, the Chinese statesman
Zeng Ji-ze still declared that “Vietnam belongs to China,” therefore
“China is duty-bound to protect Vietnam’s entire territory.” (quoted
by Lloyd E. Eastman, Throne and
mandarins. China’s search for a policy during the Sino-French
controversy, 1880-1885, Cambridge, Harvard U.P., 1967, p. 39).
Hoàng Xuân Hãn, “Vụ Bắc-sứ năm
Canh-thìn đời Cảnh-hưng” [The 1760 embassy to
China under the Canh-hung reign], Sử
Ðịa, 6, 1967, p. 143-144.
Truong Buu Lâm, “Intervention versus tribute in Sino-Vietnamese
relations”, The Chinese World Order, John K. Fairbank ed., Cambridge, Harvard
U.P., 1968, p. 174-177.
Cf. Nguyên Thê Anh, “L’immigration chinoise et la colonization du
delta du Mékong”, The Vietnam Forum, 1 (Autumn-Winter 1996),
pp. 154-177; and Carl A. Trocki, “Chinese Pioneering in
Eighteenth-Century Southeast Asia”, The Last Stand of Asian
Autonomies, A. Reid ed., Houndmills, Macmillan Press, 1997, pp.
 For a discussion of the pre-1945 interactions between Chinese and Vietnamese communists, see Christopher E. Goscha, “Entremêlements sino-vietnamiens: Réflexions sur le sud de la Chine et la révolution vietnalienne entre les deux guerres”, Approches-Asie, n° 16 (1999), pp. 81-108.
Cf. Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam wars, 1950-1975. Chapel
Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000, xiv-304 p.
 For those and later developments, cf. Bùi Xuân Quang’s voluminous study, La troisième guerre d’Indochine, 1975-1999. Sécurité et géopolitique en Asie du Sud-Est. Paris, l’Harmattan, 2000, 821 p. Vociferous condemnations of China’s hegemonic willpower were expressed during these years of tension in a flurry of pseudo-historical publications, such as: Văn học Việt Nam trên những chặng đường chống phong kiến Trung-quốc xâm lược [Vietnamese literature in the stages of resistance to feudalistic China’s invasion], Hanoi, NXB Khoa-Học Xã-Hội, 1981, 674 p.; Nguyễn Việt, Vũ Minh Giang, Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng, Quân thủy trong lịch sử chống ngoại xâm [The Navy in the History of Resistance to Foreign Invasion], Hanoi, NXB Quân Ðội Nhân Dân, 1983, 552 p.
In a personal note, Martin Stuart-Fox suggests that the blow was greater
to idealists in Vietnam who hoped the ‘proletarian internationalism’
might replace traditional ‘great power chauvinism’.
See Martin Stuart-Fox’s forthcoming book, China and Southeast Asia
(St Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 2002), in which the author demonstrates
that, as Chinese power increases and Marxism is replaced by nationalism,
not only is China reverting to more traditional relations with Southeast
Asia, but Southeast Asian nations are responding in the same vein.
Xinhua Domestic Service, 8 Dec. 1997.
Speech by Foreign Minister
Nguyen Manh Cam at the opening of 10th National Assembly's Fourth
Session in Hanoi, 28 Nov. 1998.
 Cf. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, La souveraineté sur les Archipels Paracels et Spratleys. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996, 307 p.
Nayan Chanda, “Friend
or Foe? Hanoi has embarked on a controversial policy of closer
ties with its oldest enemy – China”, Far Eastern Economic Review,
June 22, 2000.
Since the normalization in 1991 of the relations between China and
Vietnam, the exchange of visits and frequent consultations on major
issues between leaders of the two countries are considered as having
played an irreplaceable role in promoting bilateral relations. Recently,
in an editorial on 7 September 2001, Nhân Dân described the
visit to Hanoi of the Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's
National People' s Congress Li Peng as a source of encouragement to the
Vietnamese people and a vivid expression of the two countries’ desire
to develop the ties on the principle of “long term stability,
orientations towards the future, good-neighbourliness and friendship and
all-round cooperation.” The party daily also praised the great
successes the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party
of China (CPC) have achieved in the cause of national construction,
steadily developing the economy in more than two decades of reform
and opening-up drive. It recalled that, since the early 1990s, the two
countries have striven to promote the political, economic and cultural
exchanges in order to elevate their bilateral comprehensive cooperation
in new dimensions.
Nayan Chanda, art. cit.
In particular, the decision taken in mid-2001 to work to finalise
amendments to its 1992 constitution, which are expected to enshrine
rights of the private sector, incites Vietnam to watch still more
closely China's plans to allow entrepreneurs to join the ruling
Lê Khả Phiêu’s replacement at the head of Vietnam’s ruling
Communist Party in early 2001 has been attributed to a perceived
excessive closeness to China and charges he had given too much away in
I am grateful to Professors Wang Gungwu
and Martin Stuart-Fox for their enlightening comments during and after the