For decades, Vietnam has walked a tightrope between East and West, as Communist Party factions jostled over whether to align more with China or more with the US. China’s latest aggression in the East/South China Sea escalates the skill challenge — and may even threaten the survival of Vietnam’s ruling acrobats.
Although Vietnam has an ugly history with both countries, the pro-China faction has generally prevailed in Vietnam’s government. Vietnam has evolved as a Chinese-style state-controlled capitalistic autocracy. China has been allowed to exploit Vietnamese natural resources. China dominates trade between the two countries. And China even gets favorable treatment in Vietnam’s schools that teach about the horrors of the American War but gloss over (or don’t mention) the more recent border war of Chinese aggression.
But there’s evidence this week that the dynamic may be changing. The Chinese embassy in Hanoi was the setting for the largest anti-China protests in recent history, and the Vietnamese government permitted it. Vietnamese officials worldwide have been loudly protesting China’s contention that it owns the South China and all the resources within it — and Vietnam’s diplomats have been working overtime to line up supporters, including the US.
Meanwhile, China may not be the biggest problem the ruling party faces in Vietnam. A bigger problem may be its own citizenry: nearly 100 million mostly young, restless, entrepreneurial people who are increasingly enamored of Western culture, products, and political ideas. Many of them are highly educated, blogging, Facebook-users who are watching closely to see whether their government is capable of handling China.