Vietnamese leaders, citizens cannot pussyfoot around Chinese aggression and transgression

By Dang Hung Vo   May 25, 2020 | 04:15 pm PT
The Vietnamese public was greatly agitated after learning Chinese investors had landed several important contracts to rent vast areas of forests with strategic national defense values.
Dang Hung Vo

Dang Hung Vo

The rented forests were soon barricaded and hidden from the public’s eyes.

It happened about 10 years ago. However, the news soon disappeared from the front pages.

At first, I joined the agitated crowd, worrying for Vietnam’s security. Later, as the crowd became disinterested, I remained anxious, contemplating the nation’s immediate and long-term interests.

In theory, Vietnamese laws pay great attention to ensuring the nation’s security and defense while utilizing all investments in our natural resources. Therefore, all investment projects relating to natural resources like forests are legally subject to top-tier opinions from both the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Public Security before they can proceed further.

However, in reality, problems occur when local executive branches hesitate to enforce laws against investors' illegal activities. The case of Chinese investors barricading the rented estate is only one of many cases of the private sector breaking rules with little law enforcement efforts from national leaders.

And such feeble law enforcement is not confined to some rural, inconspicuous areas. Illegal actions go unpunished even in the nation's capital. In Hanoi, a construction violation was discovered at 8B Le Truc Street, Ba Dinh District. The building had illegally extended over 6,000 square meters in floor area, and 16 meters in height. The violation has not been resolved until now, in 2020.

A few days ago, I received a dozen phone calls from news agencies asking for an interview on the recent increase in Chinese ownership of many Vietnamese real estate properties with strategic interests, especially in national defense. However, the number of phone calls decreased soon and interest dwindled, just as it had happened in previous cases.

Before, there was the "zero-cost" travel tour in which Chinese tourists, despite traveling in Vietnam, stayed at Chinese-owned facilities, spending Chinese yuan. For this, Vietnam, despite contributing the destinations, received nothing: no tax, no service fee. Meanwhile, the Chinese tourists were not much of a delight themselves, behaving badly at all Vietnamese travel destinations.

Meanwhile, in many FDI, ODA, or domestically funded projects in Vietnam that Chinese contractors won, a large number of Chinese laborers were brought illegally to Vietnam to work, blatantly violating Vietnam's investment laws.

Most prominently, the unfinished Cat Linh - Ha Dong metro line in Hanoi, with Chinese loans and Chinese contractors, has stagnated for the past decade, with costs ballooning by over 50 percent.

Despite loopholes, problems with obvious breaches of Vietnamese laws occur mainly because of the tardiness and disinterest of local officials in enforcement.

Now, people take different positions on this situation. Some argue that if strong, harsh measures are taken, foreign investors can view Vietnam as having an unfriendly investment environment. In contrast, some criticize the government for being influenced by group interests and hint strongly that corruption is involved.

Whatever be the reason for the tardiness and disinterest in enforcing laws, the responsible public is increasingly concerned about our nation’s interests.

One extreme section would support halting all foreign investments and international integration for the fear of losing sovereignty, and this influenced the government resolution halting the establishment of special economic zones in Van Don, Bac Van Phong and Phu Quoc. Their view would be that the special economic zones, despite their capability to greatly bolster the Vietnamese economy, could be utilized by foreign nations, most prominently China, to infringe on Vietnamese sovereignty over those geographical areas. This section would swing radically to the safety polar of national policy.

Construction projects at Phu Quoc Island off Vietnams southern province of Kien Giang. Photo courtesy of Kien Giang Peoples Committee. 

Construction projects at Phu Quoc Island off Vietnam's southern province of Kien Giang. Photo courtesy of Kien Giang People's Committee. 

Meanwhile, some others simply trust that the Vietnamese government would implement wise foreign policies to advance the national interests. This extreme standpoint would also be naive, considering China’s increasing aggressiveness in the East Sea (also called the South China Sea).

As China already controls several disputed islands in the East Sea, if Vietnam lets Chinese corporations and governments control Vietnamese coastal areas with strategic defense values, the nation’s self-defense capability would be greatly undermined, leading to increased likelihood of sovereignty infringements by China.

These actions of the Chinese government, in my view, should be considered dishonorable, abusive behavior on less privileged beings, which contrasts with virtues often praised in ancient Confucianism. It is curious why the nation that continuously praises such virtues practices vices everywhere.

This dishonorable approach of China in territorial issues is also recognized by many other foreign nations, especially regarding its "nine-dash line" claim in the East Sea.

However, as far as we are concerned, the "nine-dash line" is hardly the first aggressive action by China against Vietnamese sovereignty. In 1974, while Vietnam was busy with domestic reunification, China took control of the Paracel Islands. This was followed by the 1988 attack at the Johnson Reef, in which over 60 Vietnamese military personnel were killed by the Chinese military.

Right now, as the world unites against the alarming Covid-19 pandemic, China is taking advantage of the situation to fortify its position on maritime territorial issues. This is hardly virtuous behavior.

So how should Vietnam respond? The nation has no choice but to become stronger, economically and in national defense. Even as Vietnam acts with caution, remaining passive for short-term safety is ill advised. Instead, Vietnam needs to show resilience to protect our long-term interests.

Economically, Vietnam needs to utilize its geographical proximity to 1.5-billion strong Chinese market, while maintaining its independence from China.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s national defense, especially the Vietnamese Navy, needs to get stronger. The naval force needs to accompany Vietnamese seafarers to hold on to our sovereignty.

We should maintain objectivity in dealing with Chinese investment and economic activities in Vietnam, as we do with all other nations. However, constant integrity and vigilance is required of all Vietnamese citizens. This means that no Vietnamese person should ever participate in any illegal activity for self-interest.

*Dang Hung Vo is a former vice minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

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