Hanoi draws on wartime rival's stance to bolster South China Sea claim

Greg Torode says there's a good reason Hanoi is now highlighting the role its bitter wartime enemy once played in opposing China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 3:59am

Hanoi's intensifying propaganda battle over the disputed South China Sea could yet produce an intriguing victor - the former regime of South Vietnam that it defeated in 1975 after years of war.

The stance - both rhetorical and military - of a government once long derided by Hanoi as "puppets" and "lackeys" of the US now features prominently in the country's official discourse promoting its claims to disputed islands.

Expanding on previous works, recent official pamphlets and commentaries from scholars detail the efforts of the "Saigon administration" in asserting and defending Vietnam's claimed sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes. One, from Dr Tran Truong Thuy, of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, notes the exercise of sovereignty by Saigon in "both legal nature and reality", saying the modern government "enjoyed the rights and obligations" of both former northern and southern governments after formal unification in 1976.

The bitter wartime rhetoric that saw Hanoi paint Saigon as a tool of violent US "imperialists", as well as the dark history of conflict, is, of course, conspicuous by its absence.

It is a deeply sensitive issue. Hanoi appears to be finessing a narrative that buttresses its case against arguments that the communists in the north did not do enough to assert sovereignty against challenges from China in the 1950s and in 1974, when Chinese forces attacked a crumbling South Vietnamese navy to take over their holdings in the western Paracels, completing Beijing's occupation. Hanoi officials know such arguments could one day prove vital should the dispute ever come to court.

While Saigon was shrill in its condemnation of China in 1974, Hanoi was not - a reflection of wartime realities wherein Beijing was a vital backer of Hanoi, then on the cusp of what it called its "great spring victory" against the US-backed south.

When Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last November used televised testimony to the National Assembly to outline China's use of force to occupy the Paracels, it reportedly marked the first time a top Hanoi official had acknowledged the fact.

The issue carries plenty of baggage. It cuts not only to the heart of Vietnam's complex relationship with China but also its domestic situation. Soldiers of the former South Vietnam and their families have long complained of persecution and lingering mistrust from modern Vietnam's Communist Party rulers. Those tensions have eased in recent years, and Hanoi has taken formal steps to acknowledge that overseas Vietnamese - known as Viet Kieu and many of whom fled the south after 1975 - form an integral part of the nation. Boosted by a rapidly evolving strategic relationship with the US, the Vietnamese authorities have also moved to free up access to dual nationality and property for returning Viet Kieu.

While potentially uniting disparate exile and domestic groupings, South China Sea tensions swiftly inflame foreign-based nationalists, and Hanoi remains wary of any claims that it is not doing enough to stand up to Beijing.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com