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“China 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

Nguyễn Thế Anh
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes
(Sorbonne, Paris)

        The Chinese experience, going back into the mists of time, is to the Vietnamese compa­rable to a love-hate relationship, or rather a mixture of attraction and animosity for which one of the titles of the songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime, moi non plus”, could very well be used to typify. It heavily influences all of Vietnam’s foreign affairs, and for the past thousand years, relations with China are characterized by a complexity that could be termed as prickly at the formal level, extensive and reasonably amicable at routine level. In fact, today’s situa­tion alternating between flare-ups on the one hand and official assev­erations of unshakable friendship on the other is somewhat reminiscent of ancient patterns of Sino-Vietnamese inter­course, characteristically marked by the intricacies of the diplomacy of a smaller country that always had to take into account the expansionist will of a powerful neigh­bour in its regional relations. 


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.

If 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.[1] 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.[2]

The 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.

Were 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.

The 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.

This 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.[3] 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.

Vietnam’s 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.[4] 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, cultural patrimony.[5]

Interaction 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 themselves.[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8]


In 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.[9] 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, Vit Sử Lược [Sum­mary of Viet History],[10] 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, 文獻之 wen 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.[11]

 In 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.[12] 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.”[13] 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 identity.

 For, 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.[14] 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.

Chinese 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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 country.

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 all 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.[19] 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, 假諱 jia hui] in their diplomatic correspondence with the Chinese court.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.


With 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,[23] 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.[24] 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 other.

Transforming 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”.[25] 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’.[26]

Diplomatic 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 ethnic Chinese.

To 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 approval.[27] But, stating 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’.

On 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.”[28] 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.[29]

And, 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.”[30]

Regarding 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.[31] 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.

These 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.[32] 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
include “friendly neighbourliness”, “multifaceted cooperation” and “long-term stability”.[33] It is stressed that the exchange of views and experiences, especially in political education, between the two parties is essential for party building and renovation on the way to socialism. Thus, the mutual understanding and comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and China would be developed according to the aspirations and interests of each country.

Undoubtedly, 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.[34] 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.

Ideology 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.[35] 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 Vietnamese attitudes.

Even 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 border.

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.[36] 

[1] Keith W. Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983, p. 298.

[2] Keith W. Taylor, op. cit., p. 299.

[3] Cf. Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971, 358 p.

[4] Alexander Woodside, “Vietnamese History: Confucianism, Colonialism, and the Struggle for Independence”,  The Vietnam Forum, 11 (Winter-Spring 1988), p. 29.

[5] 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.

[6] O. W. Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Ithaca, SEAP, 1999, p. 63.

[7] Ibid., p. 86.

[8] 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.

[9] Keith W. Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983, p. 293.

[10] Transl. Trần Quốc Vượng, Việt Sử Lược, Hanoi, NXB Văn Sử ñịa, 1960, 222 p.

[11] Quoted in Nguyên Thê Anh, “La frontière sino-vietnamienne du XIe au XVIIe siècle”, Les frontières du Viêt­nam, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1989, p. 66.

[12] Stephen O’Harrow, “Nguyen Trai’s Binh Ngo Dai Cao 平吳大誥 of 1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 10-1 (March 1979), p. 174.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15] O. W. Wolters, “Historians and emperors in Vietnam and China”, art. cit., pp. 69-89.

[16] Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, Hanoi, t. I, 1983, p. 99.

[17] Le Ðai Viêt et ses voisins, Nguyễn Thế Anh ed. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1990, p. iii.

[18] See Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese model, Cambridge, Harvard U.P., 1971, pp. 234-246.

[19] 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).

[20] 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.

[21] 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.

[22] 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. 83-101.

[23] 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.

[24] Cf. Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam wars, 1950-1975. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000, xiv-304 p.

[25] 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.

[26] 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’.

[27] 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.  

[28] Xinhua Domestic Service, 8 Dec. 1997.

[29] Nhân Dân, 16 October 1998.

[30] Speech by Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam at the opening of 10th National Assembly's Fourth Session in Hanoi, 28 Nov. 1998.

[31] Cf. Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, La souveraineté sur les Archipels Paracels et Spratleys. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996, 307 p.

[32] 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.

[33] 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.

[34] Nayan Chanda, art. cit.

[35] 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 Communist Party.

[36] 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 border
negotiations with Beijing, always considered as Vietnam’s traditional rival despite shared ideology.

( I am grateful to Professors Wang Gungwu and Martin Stuart-Fox for their enlightening comments during and after the conference.)