I went to Vietnam in the summer of 2016. If we flash back to two years ago, we would see that relations between Vietnam and China at that time were at least a little tense.
It all centered on the South China Sea, a flashpoint in the headlines nightly in China, and subject to the occasional “What you Need to Know about the South China Sea” articles in the West.
I decided to head to Vietnam right when this came to a boil between the two nations with a Chinese friend. On either end of our flights, two events threatened to make our journey a little more tense than we’d imagined.
What You Need to Know About the South China Sea
The amount of territory China is claiming is, indeed, large. The so-called “Nine Dashed Line” sweeps by within miles of several countries, like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. The US (obviously) has had a “Pivot to Asia” (this happened during Obama’s time) and has been sending cruisers through the area to show freedom of passage.
In addition, China has been essentially building or filling in islands and installing military presence there so they could have claims to the area. International law is clear on the issue: 12 miles within a natural island (defined as being visible at high tide).
China is definitely outside this area. That’s not really what they’re debating. Also, there *may* be oil in the area but as far as we know, it’s a miniscule amount compared to the potential to be a flash point with the West.
ASEAN countries (Southeast Asian) have occasionally tacitly approved of US intervention because they certainly can’t overpower China. They appealed to the Hague to make a ruling, which according to the remarkably clear wording was never going to be in favor of China.
The funny thing about international law, is it’s only valid if the countries in question actually agree to it. So if China says, “hey, screw that,” well then, it’s no longer international law. So naturally enough, when the court of arbitration ruled in favor of the ASEAN nations, well China said, “ehhh we don’t recognize that ruling, but we’re willing to negotiate.” (i.e. we realize what we’re doing is wrong, but we’ll make sure you’re happy with what’s going on.)
However, the Philippines overturned this precedent with the election of Duterte, who more or less has sided with China in a big middle finger to the US. He’s more focused on improving the domestic economy so that it doesn’t rely on foreign remittances and stamping out drug usage. As such, there is at least one ASEAN nation who don’t see eye-to-eye with the United States.
What China’s doing is against international law. That much is factual. However, this is exactly what the US has done for 100+ years. So why can we do it and they can’t? The case was brought against them to weaken China, but in truth, it’s strengthened them. They have now shown that they square up to an international case and dismiss it.
How did the South China Sea Affect my Journey to Vietnam
When we were leaving for China, there was a huge hullabaloo at the Vietnamese embassy in China. For a few years now, the Middle Kingdom has been swept by nationalist sentiments, as have many other countries. The day before we left, it kicked off.
A Chinese traveler wishing to visit Vietnam, brought their passport to the embassy with all the requisite forms. When they went to pick it up, they discovered there was (quite literally) a big “Fuck You” in the pages of the passport, written over the disputed territory.
My buddy was worried that over the course of the trip he would be discriminated against and was super tense for a few days. Fortunately, nothing happened.
After our ten days in the coastal nation were up, we went to crash for the last time, ready to snag our flight in the morning.
We checked the news and his heart sank.
In retaliation, two Chinese hackers got into the software at two Vietnamese airports in Hanoi and Saigon and altered the maps so that they included the entirety of the South China Sea in China’s territory.
This was shocking for both nations involved, and higher level meetings between leaders had to settle things down. In any case, there was tensions among Chinese toward Vietnamese for a while.
That evening, the airport in Hanoi was delayed several hours as they had to start checking people in by hand and the computers all went down.
Fortunately we got there the next day without a hitch and went home.
What could have been a nightmare for us traveling ended up being nothingburger. Fortunately the playthings of the political elite stayed away and we experienced not racism, but a wonderful time in the country. Do yourself a favor and have a visit to Vietnam!
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you agree with my assessment of the South China Sea? Do you also love Vietnam?