Vietnam Tries to Put Anti-China Genie Back Into the Bottle

Vietnamese protesters shout anti-China slogans at a rally in central Hanoi on Aug. 14, 2011. About 100 people took to Hanoi's streets to protest against Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Vietnamese government rounded up and jailed dozens of demonstrators in Hanoi, trying to end a summer of weekly anti-China rallies related to the Spratly Island disputes.

Vietnam is under pressure from China and some Southeast Asian neighbors to temper the war of words and pursue a negotiated diplomatic solution. Vietnamese Communist Party leaders are also wary of planting the seed for an Indochinese Arab Spring — state-owned media called the latest rally a "ridiculous farce" and accused anti-state forces of whipping up "national hatred" to cause public disorder. Indeed, there is some evidence that critics see the current dispute as an opportunity to challenge the party.

Although Vietnam has ample experience suppressing public protests, it has wavered throughout the summer and appears undecided on how to deal with the current impasse.

Arresting anti-China protesters undermines the government's longstanding claim that it is stoutly defending the country against Chinese aggression, and without nationalist credentials, the Communist Party's legitimacy has perilously little on which to stand.

In addition, quashing the rallies invites criticism from international partners whose support Vietnam needs to negotiate a favorable settlement in the South China Sea. Most important among these is the United States, which has already voiced public concern about the latest crackdowns.

Officials in Hanoi likely regret allowing the protests to begin in June. With each week, it appears increasingly difficult to put underlying public frustrations back in a bottle.

Related link:
John Ciorciari: "Non-negligible Risk of War" in the South China Sea

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John D. Ciorciari is Assistant Professor at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. He focuses on international law and politics, particularly in Asia. He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.