LANG SON, Vietnam - At this historic pass overlooking Viet-nam's border with China,
an old man named Chan Nguyen lights incense sticks and weeps.
Nguyen has been praying to the spirit of Le Loi, Vietnam's famous 13th king who ambushed
Chinese leaders here in the 14th century and saved the country from re-colonization.
"We need King Le Loi's spirit to bless us now," Nguyen says, "because
Big Dragon is about to swallow Little Dragon again."
These days many Vietnamese share Nguyen's anxiety. After 12 years of a regional cold
war, the two most populous communist countries left in the world have recently signed
provisional diplomatic and trade agreements.
"But China is two-faced," says a young communist official here who declines
to give his name. "It offers to share its big red umbrella with Vietnam but
underneath it is robbing us blind."
The young official points to the fact that China recently signed a joint venture
with a U.S. company to explore for oil in the South China Sea near the Spratley archipelago
which was captured from Vietnam by Chinese forces four years ago. The new venture
has set off alarm bells in Hanoi over China's territorial claims and reopened a high-level
debate on the future of Vietnam-China relations.
"Obviously, China is more than a threat," says the young official. "It
is a historical and contemporary enemy. It never wanted Vietnam to prosper."
As Vietnam tries desperately through its post-1986 policy of Doi Moi to introduce
a market-based economy, "China has just cursed us," the official complains.
"It's like trying to open a store with your neighbor occupying the sidewalk
in front and refusing to budge."
Indeed, fueling tensions are not just territorial disputes but a rapidly growing
trade imbalance, nowhere more evident than in this border town, demolished by the
Chinese Army 13 years ago but now quite prosperous.
Recently the Hanoi-based newspaper Nhan Dan reported that smuggling here accounts
for 30 times more trade than that which occurs through formal channels. Much of it
involves "endangered species, opium, precious metals, and young girls."
Tinh Hoang, 25, a porter in Lang Son who earns less than $4 a day carrying goods
over the border's rugged terrain, admits, "We are very poor. Most of us would
do anything to survive." Today Hoang and his cousin are carrying a cage of 36
monkeys to be sold in Gungxin. Behind him, other porters carry Chinese beer, electronic
goods, rubber hoses, and water pumps to be sold in Lang Son.
Asked about the smuggling of young women, Hoang smiles shyly. "It's true. I
don't dare do it but I've seen others who do. China is so big and hungry, it just
swallows everything up."
Son Tran, a 35-year-old businessman from Hanoi who buys Chinese beer to sell in Hanoi,
acknowledges that mass-produced, non-taxed Chinese goods are flooding Vietnam's market
and undermining local industries. "Three of my friends lost their tile business
because they couldn't compete with Chinese tiles."
And while Hanoi's markets overflow with Chinese surplus goods, local products such
as lychees, shrimp, and crab are becoming scarce and expensive. "I have a feeling
that Vietnam is slowly returning to its tributarian role with China again,"
says Chan Nguyen, the old man. "Our best products end up in Beijing."
If anger towards China is high, it is also focused on Vietnam's own leaders. Son
Tran says many in his generation think the old Vietnamese leaders are more loyal
to their ideology than to their own country. "They are willing to overlook the
danger of Chinese expansionism simply because China offers them a rotten piece of
candy-socialism," he says.
For its part, Hanoi worries that as economic links grow, Beijing's real interests
lie in gaining maritime access via Haiphong for its long-isolated southern provinces.
And as northern Vietnam is drawn ever deeper into southern China's economic orbit,
there is fear that the historic divide between North and South Vietnam will inevitably
Some observers warn that regional conflict could flare up again if Vietnam is pushed
"Communist or not, I would fight the Chinese if they take any more land,"
says the young official, recalling 3,000 years of Vietnamese rebellion against Chinese
domination. But others doubt there is much Hanoi can do to resist without money or
foreign military backing.
"We are not in a position to challenge anybody now and we will lose big if we
fight China," notes Truong Le, a retired Vietnamese Army captain who fought
in Cambodia in 1979 to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.
Ironically, the one force widely counted on to help Vietnam contain China in the
long run is the United States. "If the U.S. lifts the trade embargo," speculates
Son Tran, "we won't have to rely on China. And the U.S. won't stab Vietnam."
"By lifting the embargo, the U.S. could very well keep China in check and contained,"
agrees a high ranking U.N. official in Hanoi.
In the meantime, Vietnam bites its tongue and waits. In Lang Son, Jiang Lee, an investor
from Beijing, shakes hands with Kien Pham, a local merchant. "We don't have
any problem now," Lee says. "Of course not," Pham agrees. But as soon
as Lee departs, Pham leans over, shakes his head and whispers, "I wouldn't trust
him even if he offers to trade back our Spratleys for a pair of plastic slippers."
- Pacific News Service