Hanoi is marking for the first time the anniversary of a deadly 1974 battle between China and US-backed South Vietnamese forces in the South China Sea, apparently seeking to boost its legitimacy at home as tensions over the disputed waters flare anew.
The fight, in which 74 South Vietnamese soldiers died, followed China’s occupation of the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which are also claimed by Taiwan. It is especially sensitive because the government of North Vietnam did not counter the Chinese move, or even acknowledge that force was used. At the time, Beijing was giving North Vietnam arms and money to fight the US and Vietnamese troops from the south.
Anti-China sentiment is widespread in Vietnam, and the Hanoi government is vulnerable to charges it is not tough enough against Beijing, something that pro-democracy groups are keen to exploit. Overseas Vietnamese groups and dissidents have traditionally marked the battle.
State-run media have been running stories on the anniversary, which is today, as well as interviews with families of the victims, who have never received any support from the government.
Vietnamese media do not report on issues concerning China without the approval of the Vietnamese government.
“After a long time, the deaths of my husband and others seemed to fall into oblivion, but I’m very glad that they have been mentioned,” online newspaper Vietnam.net quoted Huynh Thi Sinh, the widow of the captain of the naval ship who died along with 73 others, as having said. “Maybe in his world he’s feeling satisfied. His sacrifice is very meaningful. I’m proud.”
Authorities in central Vietnam said they were organizing exhibitions and workshops to mark the 40th anniversary of China’s “illegal occupation” of the Paracels.
Hoang Sa People’s Committee chairman Dang Cong Ngu said candles will be lit on Danang beach to commemorate those who died, including the 74 South Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese and Chinese navies clashed again in 1988 in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), killing 64 Vietnamese sailors. That clash has not been marked either.
Illustrating the difficult path the Vietnamese government is treading, online dissident groups announced plans to protest against China in Hanoi today.
Similar demonstrations have occasionally occurred over the past few years. They are normally quickly broken up by Vietnamese authorities, who are highly nervous of any sign of organized public protest. Vietnam and other states sharing the South China Sea are increasingly concerned over China’s growing military and diplomatic assertiveness in pressing its territorial claims in the waters, which are believed to have significant oil and gas reserves. Vietnam’s economic dependence on its giant neighbor means its options are limited despite popular demand that it speak out.
Last week, Hanoi released a sharply worded statement against a Chinese law that requires foreign fishermen to seek Beijing’s approval to operate in much of the South China Sea. The move has led to fears of confrontation in the strategic waters.