Vietnamese scholar discusses East Sea disputes on Chinese television

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PhD Vu Cao Phan, a researcher on Vietnam-China relations and deputy chairman of Vietnam-China Friendship Society, last week had an interview with Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong-based Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese television broadcaster.

Phan spoke on behalf of the Institute of Chinese Studies under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences.

The highlights of the interview are published below.

What attitude does Vietnam's tough reaction on the East Sea demonstrate?

If you just look at recent incidents to judge the reaction and attitude of Vietnam, it would not be right. Let's take a look further in recent years, when more and more Vietnamese fishing boats have been seized by China, with fishing equipment confiscated for ransoms. Last year, for example, tens of boats and hundreds of fishermen were captured. The East Sea has for long been a peaceful fishery for Vietnamese fishermen, and now it turns out like that.

I remember a Vietnam Television's news report projected hundreds of people, who are families and relatives of the seized fishermen, standing and sitting on the beach, crying and praying for their loved ones to come back home safe and sound.

The report later sparked public outrage in Vietnam, but I think Chinese people did not know about that.

Vietnamese leaders have met with their Chinese counterparts many times to talk about the arrests, but not all requirements were met. This time, China has demonstrated aggressive actions, which prompted Vietnam to react in a similar way. There is nothing abnormal about that.

So I think Vietnamese leaders' statements are just defensive reactions, not provocative words. If Chinese people see Vietnam's reaction as abnormal, maybe it's because they do not know about previous incidents like I have just recalled.

If you call the reaction "an escalation" I can say that Vietnam is always one step behind China. That's right, China always climbs forward.

In your opinion, will the East Sea disputes be solved by violence or negotiation?

In Vietnam, this kind of question has virtually never been asked. Although Vietnam experienced a few wars during the latter half of the past century, few people imagine a China-Vietnam war because of East Sea islands at the moment.

In my opinion, I believe the disputes will be solved peacefully. Firstly, it's because the two governments have always pledged to settle the disputes by diplomatic means and talks.

Secondly, the two nations are focusing on economic development after being devastated by the Cultural Revolution (China) and the wars (Vietnam) for years; their reconstruction causes have achieved remarkable results so I think none of them would ever want a war.

Thirdly, in the context of a modern world, I mean the international public opinion, any idea of a war would be rejected.

Last but not least, if the two governments are a bit overheated, the sense and goodwill of the two peoples would cool them down, I believe. In return, may I ask you a question? Would you like a war?

I myself think small conflicts can happen, not a war.

In your opinion, is the nature of China-Vietnam disputes economy or sovereignty related?  How does Vietnam regard China's traditional policy of "shelving disputes and developing jointly"?

Interesting question. The East Sea incidents are both economically and sovereignty related. It seems China is inclined to economic reasons, while Vietnam is inclined to sovereignty reasons. It explains why Vietnam is not very interested in the "shelving disputes and developing jointly" idea.

Let me make it clear. Firstly, the East Sea resources are not inexhaustible, so what will happen if the two sides use them up?

Secondly, the motto you have just mentioned is just part of a saying by Deng Xiaoping, which literally means: "Our sovereign, shelving disputes and developing jointly," is that right?

It means Vietnam will have nothing while China will still have sovereignty once the resources run dry. Meanwhile, the East Sea islands have more meanings than just resources.

I support the idea that the two countries go in for joint exploitation of resources in the East Sea, but at least they must shed some light on the sovereignty issue, to some extent, beforehand.

If I am allowed to talk about the nature of the Vietnam-China disputes on the East Sea myself, I will call it politics.

Vietnam-China relationship has not been without problems for the last several decades, before sea disputes broke out.

To solve the problem, two sides' high-ranking leaders should gather to discuss in a calm, equal and honest way. And that's not easy at all.

It is not easy to face the fact, but it would be easy if there is goodwill to develop sustainable ties between the two countries.

How do you envision the future China-Vietnam relations? How to maintain the friendship between the two countries?

I have worked for the Vietnam-China Friendship Society for many years and have had an attachment for China. To be honest, I admire China. My wish is that the two peoples would build a really fine relationship. But there is still a long way to go. Many things must be restarted.

I myself have some solutions:

Firstly, the bilateral talks are needed. The Spratly archipelago is of multilateral dispute, so it needs multilateral talks. But the Paracel archipelago is the issue between Vietnam and China only. Meanwhile, your government declares the Paracel belongs to China and there will be no talks about that. The declaration has put an end to any possibility of bilateral talks.

The Paracel Islands dispute is much similar to the Senkaku Islands dispute between China and Japan, in which China's position is totally similar to that of Vietnam at the moment. Does China have double standards for the disputes that are similar in nature?

Secondly, we usually talk about the similarity between Chinese and Vietnamese cultures as an advantage for coexistence of the two nations. It is right, to some extent, but on the other hand, there are still several differences between the two cultures, particularly behavior.

If Chinese people behave strongly, decisively and a bit imposingly, or can I say reason-oriented, Vietnamese people, in contrary, behave softly and tolerantly, or heart-oriented. For Vietnamese people, an insult is soon forgotten, but a good favor long remembered.

If you understand Vietnamese people, it would be easier for the bilateral relations.

I can take an example. The Nanking massacre and the Lugouqiao Incident happened more than 70 years ago, but Chinese people demonstrated and repeated the incidents whenever Japan-China relations got sour.

Vietnamese people are not like that. The Japanese fascists contributed to the Vietnamese famine of 1945, which killed millions of Vietnamese people, and the Americans and South Koreans committed many crimes to Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War  between 1965 and 1975. However, after the war ended, American and Korean veterans were still welcomed by friendly smiles when they came back to Vietnam.

Maybe it is Vietnamese people's behavior that helps the US, Japan and South Korea to become Vietnam's largest donors and trade partners after the war.

I think China's toughness towards Vietnam did, and is pushing Vietnamese people further from you, the Chinese people. It is not true that Vietnam is seeking evil alliances to fight against China.

Another example: the 1979 incident. Vietnamese people want to forget about it, and still keep friendship with China. In contrary, Chinese people keep talking about the incident. You know, I did not notice what was special about the year 2009 until I read on Chinese websites and newspapers that 2009 marked the 30th year since the 1979 war. And Chinese press kept recalling the incident during the whole year. Hundreds of articles were written with very bad words for Vietnam. Well, let's be over it.

Thirdly, the Vietnam-China relationship should be special given the similarities between us in terms of culture and history.

We used to be good neighbors who helped each other in times of difficulties. I myself was a soldier in the [Vietnm] war and I cannot forget China's supply of weapons and food for Vietnam in the wartime. Vietnam and China are both having reforms and open policies for economic development.

In addition, the two countries have other things in common: the political institution and ideology.

These are the reasons for the establishment of a special relationship. 

However, in my opinion, same ideology cannot stop countries from having conflicts, because national interest is always put above ideology. So we should not regard "same ideology" as a condition for our friendship.

Imagine one day one of the two countries has another political institution. Will Vietnam and China remain good neighbors? I think the two should maintain the friendship.

I am willing to join you to do anything that may help bring Vietnam and China closer and bring mutual understanding.

Thank you, Phoenix Television, for the interview.

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