Vietnamese police dispersed anti-China protesters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday and 20 activists were reportedly detained. The protests, unsurprisingly, were painted by Western media as a manifestation of new "anger" of the Vietnamese public over the South China Sea dispute with China. According to their interpretation, in a nation where public demonstrations are strictly regulated, anti-China sentiments are just "too great to suppress."
A closer examination of the protests shows this is not a convincing explanation. In Western reports, interviewed protesters vented their frustration with "government bans" on public expression, rather than anger toward China.
According to local scholars, it's become increasingly clear since last summer's anti-China demonstrations that most protesters are political dissidents who seek to undermine the government's credibility and social stability under the guise of anti-China protests. Territorial disputes with China give these people a convenient excuse.
Vietnam, a country whose modern history, just like China, has been blighted by war, has only witnessed a few decades of peaceful development. Local experts hold that at least 90 percent of the Vietnamese public firmly oppose war and cherish peace. The opposition forces who organized the anti-China protests agitated some college students, but for the majority of society it is an open secret that those chanting "down with China" were actually opposing the government.
There are hawkish politicians in the Vietnamese government who throw out tough statements against China, while the minority of Vietnamese took to the street. In August 2011, the Vietnamese government announced it was expelling Chinese enterprises from participating in bauxite mining in Vietnam.
It is Vietnam that has stirred up the current tensions over its territorial disputes with China. Hanoi underestimated China's determination and measures it has at its disposal to safeguard its sovereignty. Nevertheless, after this misjudgment, Hanoi found it hard to restrain domestic nationalist sentiment, which had been agitated, to an appropriate level. All these factors have undermined the cooperative relationship between Vietnam and China.
Hanoi may need to strike a balance between meeting its diplomatic needs and appeasing complex domestic appeals, and recognize where the so-called social pressure to engage in diplomatic antagonism against China truly comes from.
Meanwhile, under the long shadow of the "Vietnam War syndrome," the US is endeavoring to make contact with the Vietnamese and deepen ties in various fields. Vietnam is probably enjoying the game of profiting from its relations between the US and China.
But it may need much more prudence in order to master the balance in this game.