Eight Vietnamese nongovernmental organizations and 1,700 activists who live inside and outside the country have added their names to an online petition, urging Chinese President Xi Jinping not to visit Hanoi this week to protest China’s aggressive policy in the South China Sea.
Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and President Truong Tan Sang invited the Chinese leader for a two-day visit to discuss bilateral relations and regional affairs as well as address the National Assembly.
The petition’s five points outline the opinions of the signatories on the contentious relationship between Vietnam and China, citing China’s 1979 invasion of the Southeast Asia nation, its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea, and brutal treatment of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters.
State-owned media of both countries have not specified whether the leaders will discuss the disputed Paracel (in Vietnamese, Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) islands in the sea, where Chinese forces have attacked several Vietnamese fishing boats.
China claims sovereignty over the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and has laid similarly claim to the Spratlys, which Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia consider part of their sovereign territory. The islands are located amid strategic shipping lanes, abundant fishing grounds, and oil and natural gas reserves.
“The purpose of the declaration is to clearly state the opinion of the Vietnamese people,” military writer Pham Dinh Trong, who signed the document, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “Our leader may want to bow down, but this is our voice, the voice of the people showing our attitude and stance towards China.”
The petition was necessary, he said, because those who oppose China’s policies towards Vietnam cannot hold a public rally to express their views.
“In a democratic country on such an occasion, people can rally to express their opinions, but it is impossible [for us] to do so,” he said. “Therefore, we had to issue the declaration.”
Nguyen The Hung, another signatory and a founder of Bauxite, a Vietnamese website on which intellectuals express their opinions on various topics, said writers and academics as well as the Vietnamese people must inform Xi Jinping about the wrongdoings that Vietnam has suffered at China’s hands and make known the wishes of the Vietnamese on the South China Sea issue.
Nguyen Thien Chi, a professor at Ho Chi Minh City Pedagogical University who signed the petition, said he welcomed the opportunity for an exchange of opinions during Xi Jinping’s visit, as long as it benefited Vietnam.
“The policy of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Party is to diversify our [relationship],” he said. “We want friendship and peace, but friendship requires both sides. It requires courtesy and civility. It is impossible to have when the other side turns its back on it.”
Writer Pham Dinh Trong, who also added his name to the petition, said China would use the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to influence Hanoi, because the national party congress scheduled for early next year would determine new Central Committee members and Vietnam’s future leaders.
“China wants to come to Vietnam at this time to pressure our [leaders] and line up people they approve of [for the positions],” he said. “This visit is also to back people here who are supporters of China.”
But Trong also said the visit would help to open the eyes of Vietnam’s leaders to China’s intentions.
“The world trend towards China is very clear,” he said. “The Philippines and the U.S. have shown their attitude towards China, but Vietnam is still ambiguous.”
Last week, a U.S. naval destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles off an artificial island built by China in the Spratly Islands archipelago, provoking a warning from China, which saw the move as a challenge to its sovereignty claims. The Philippines, however, viewed it as a way to maintain a balance of power in the area.
The move to contain China’s activities in the South China Sea has won support from Australia and Europe, while Vietnam has not demonstrated a clear stance, Trong said.
“This tells us that the pressure from China on Vietnam’s leaders is very great,” he said. “This pressure is so great and will continue to be so for a long time, so I think this opportunity will pass.”
Nguyen Thien Chi, a member of the Vietnam-China Friendship Association and a signatory of the petition, said China’s actions are not consistent with the country's words. For example, many nations recognize that the Paracel and Spratly islands belong to Vietnam, he said, but China has ignored this and claimed the territories for itself.
“China is a big country and power, and we are a small country,” he said. “We have to wait for our neighbors and the United Nations to help us on this issue. It is difficult for a small country to fight a big country. We need time.”
Vietnam and China have been engaged in a lengthy dispute over sovereignty of both sets of islands. Last year, Vietnam vehemently opposed the stationing of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters, which caused minor maritime confrontations and deadly rioting in Vietnam.
“It's a huge mistake to extend the red carpet for Xi Jinping while China is becoming increasingly assertive in the East Sea,” said said Duy Hoang, spokesman for the pro-democracy group Viet Tan. “The Hanoi leadership should listen to the voices of the people and stop kowtowing to Beijing. How about respecting the right of people to speak up and peacefully assemble while Xi is in Vietnam?”
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.