Vietnam is worried that Trump’s weakness is making China strong

Citizens of Vietnam have developed an unusual national pastime: Across the country and on social networks, people trade suspicions that their government is secretly giving in to an aggressive China. And lately, there has been plenty of fuel for their rumours.

Some blame a visibly diminished US presence for giving Beijing an opportunity to act behind the scenes. Many blame officials in Hanoi for putting economic cooperation or alleged communist solidarity above questions of national pride. Last month, when a valuable project overseen by the Spanish company Repsol was suspended without explanation, both theories abounded.

“Is Trump weak, so therefore China is getting stronger? Maybe,” said Dung Nguyen, a small-business owner in Hanoi who often deals with foreign countries, including China. “People even worry in the future we could have another war with China. It’s all very scary.”

But with Vietnam’s closed political system keeping diplomatic machinations a secret, most people – even experts, by their own admission – simply don’t know what’s happening, providing the perfect atmosphere for wild speculation.

“We don’t really know what’s going on,” Nguyen said. “Now that everyone is online, we’ve realized that our [state] media wasn’t telling the whole truth, but we don’t have access to that whole truth, either.”

Domestically, China is one of the most sensitive issues for Vietnam’s otherwise stable communist government. Much of the country’s small dissident community attacks the Communist Party on this issue, and perceived weakness regarding Beijing is often seen as its most vulnerable point – more so than calls for democracy, expanded human rights or even the need to maintain economic growth.

Vietnam is a pillar of opposition to Beijing – at least in public view. Of the 10 countries in the ASEAN trade bloc of Southeast Asian nations, which has drifted in a pro-China direction since President Donald Trump took office, Vietnam is the last member openly pushing for a tougher stance on China’s expansion in the South China Sea – called the East Sea in Vietnam. Though many countries express private concerns, Hanoi is now publicly isolated on the issue of using international law to push back against China.

At an ASEAN forum in Manila in early August, not long after news broke of the drilling-project suspension, Vietnam reaffirmed its public opposition to Beijing. The United States, meanwhile, played an obviously reduced role, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University.

It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someonePrint this page