Sharp Elbows for China from a Neighbor

Getting an earful: Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie puts on a headset to listen at the Asia-Pacific security forum in Singapore on June 4, 2011. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

This weekend's anti-China protests in Vietnam were relatively small in scale, but they are emblematic of two broader trends that may affect international politics in Asia profoundly in the years ahead.

One is the resistance China is facing as its growing power feeds a greater sense of strategic entitlement, particularly in the South China Sea. While demonstrators marched in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, China's defense minister Gen. Liang Guanglie faced a politely-worded diplomatic barrage in Singapore at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security. Vietnam has often been the sharpest thorn in the side of China's regional aspirations, though it is not the only southern neighbor trying to constrain Beijing's reach.

The second trend is the budding appearance of Asia's Facebook generation as a force for social and political change. In this instance, the protests in Vietnam echoed and amplified official demands, but as the "Arab spring" has reminded us, frustrated self-organizing youths are dangerous for repressive one-party regimes.

The example this weekend's protesters set may represent a much greater threat to the governments in Hanoi and Beijing than either state poses to the other in the South China Sea.

Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow John Ciorciari is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.