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Countering the dragon

January 08, 2008 14:06 IST

The Vietnamese Communist Party's official organ, Nhan Dan Daily, says the joint declaration on strategic partnership that Manmohan Singh signed last July with Vietnam's prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was the third most important international event of 2007. I wonder whether this has any bearing on the crop of anti-Chinese stories that surfaced while I was there over Christmas.

One was of China paying exorbitantly for cats' tails. Thousands of Vietnamese caught strays and chopped off their tails. Result: a sharp increase in the rodent population because maimed cats couldn't catch rats or mice. As the vermin ravaged crops, China sold a cheap pesticide that worked only too well. Thousands of rats died but chicken that fed on them also sickened, as did villagers who ate the chicken. I was told the story because cultivators were erecting a plastic fence around paddy fields between Hanoi and Halong Bay.

"It's Chinese plastic," our guide explained. China exported plastic sheets in bulk to Vietnam as an antidote to the rodent population that had multiplied since cats lost their tails. Another story was of greedy Vietnamese making a fortune when China tempted them with high prices for the cinnamon tree's root, but paying dearly when their rootless cinnamons withered away.

The timing made such tales significant. For though the local papers said nary a word -- with one oblique exception to which I'll come later -- and the government was tightlipped, everyone knew the dragon was stirring in the north. A Voice of Vietnam radio reporter I travelled with to the ancient Hindu ruins at My Son said her radio station, catering to English-speaking listeners, had kept quiet about three anti-China demonstrations the week before.

Several hundred young people -- students apparently -- marched quietly round China's embassy and consulate-general in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, supposedly in spontaneous protest. But, as the ambassador from another Southeast Asian country shrugged, "What's spontaneous here?"

Demanding an immediate boycott of all Chinese imports, the protesters objected to China fleshing out its control of the Paracel Islands which it seized more than 30 years ago. Assuming my ignorance of regional geopolitics, a young Vietnamese opened an atlas to show me the Paracels, less than 400 km from the coastal town of Da Nang where his parents lived. His no doubt government-approved atlas showed the islands as Vietnam's.

His finger travelled north to the Chinese island of Hainan. "They are making the Paracels part of Hainan," he complained. "They want Hainanese to colonise it!" Why did the islands matter so much, I asked, and his hand covered the waters between them and Vietnam's coast, as he replied with the single word, "Oil."

He spoke of  waves of aggression through the centuries, of the First Indochina War against the French and the Second against the Americans. The Third Indochina War took place in 1979 when the Chinese, who had ruled Vietnam for nearly a thousand years, invaded again.

"They said they had to teach us a lesson," he said indignantly, unaware that China's President Liu Shao-chi used those exact words to justify the 1962 invasion. Vietnam, too, shares a long and unsettled border with China. I was told that though the Chinese claimed to have pulled back a few weeks later in 1979, fighting actually continued till 1986. "I know," said my informant, "because my brother was in the army."

The only exception to the compact of silence I came across was in a copy of Thanh Nien, a paper published by the Forum of the Vietnam Youth Federation. There on December 22, the Vietnamese National Army's anniversary, I read a moving tribute to soldiers who had defended Vietnam against the French, Americans and "then (in) the border conflicts after 1975." China wasn't named.

Looking out across a rough ocean and unable to see the Paracel-Spratly islands, the writer, Thanh Thao, mused, "Maybe at that exact moment our soldiers on the archipelago were also staring at the ocean, hoping somehow they could see the mainland. On the two islands where daily life can be harsh and dangerous beyond our imagination, these soldiers, I believe, live by love. Love for their hometown. For their parents. And their country." He urged readers to "take a moment to remember these soldiers who are guarding one of the most important areas of this country."

No wonder people seemed emotionally conditioned to the possibility of a Fourth Indochinese war. Or that Vietnam values so highly an alliance with "political, economic, security, defence, cultural, scientific and technological dimensions."

Sunanda K Datta-Ray