[general_devel] In Vietnam, New Fears of a Chinese 'Invasion'
Kevin Yuk-shing Li
kevinysli at graduate.hku.hk
Sat Apr 25 04:05:06 BST 2009
In Vietnam, New Fears of a Chinese 'Invasion'
By Martha Ann Overland / Hanoi
TIME. Thursday, Apr. 16, 2009
Thirty years ago, Vietnamese soldiers waged a final, furious battle in the
hills of Lang Son near the country's northern border to push back enemy
troops. Both sides suffered horrific losses, but Vietnam eventually
proclaimed victory. Decades later, diplomatic relations have been restored
and the two nations, at least in public, call each other friend. Vietnam's
former foe is a major investor in the country, bilateral trade is at an
all-time high, and tourists, not troops, are pouring in.
No, not Americans. Chinese. As part of an aggressive effort to expand its
commercial and political influence in Southeast Asia, China is investing
heavily in Vietnam. Chinese companies are now involved in myriad road
projects, mining operations and power plants. Yet, despite the fact that
cooperation between the two communist countries is being encouraged by
Vietnam's leaders, this friendly invasion does not sit well among a people
who have been fighting off Chinese advances for more than a thousand years,
most recently in 1979. Many in Vietnam worry that China is being handed the
keys not just to their country's natural resources but also to sensitive
strategic areas, threatening the nation's security. "The danger is that
China has won most of the bids building electricity, cement and chemical
plants," warns Nguyen Van Thu, the chairman of Vietnam's Association of
Mechanical Industries. "They eat up everything and leave nothing." (See
pictures of the border war between China and Vietnam.)
Thu says he suspects some Chinese companies have won construction contracts
by submitting lowball bids, which could mean they are cutting corners,
threatening quality and safety. But Thu's biggest concern is the influx of
large numbers of Chinese workers, including cooks and cleaning staff, that
are taking jobs from Vietnamese and threatening the country's social
stability. "Chinese contractors bring everything here, even the toilet
seats!" declares Thu. "These are materials Vietnam can produce, and work
that Vietnamese can do."
The latest lightning rod for anti-Chinese sentiment is Hanoi's plan to allow
subsidiaries of the Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco) to mine bauxite
ore in Vietnam's Central Highlands. Bauxite is a key ingredient in aluminum,
which China needs to fuel its construction industry. Vietnam has an
estimated eight billion tons of high-quality bauxite, the third-largest
reserves in the world. The environmental cost of extracting the mineral,
however, can be high. Strip mining is efficient, but scars the land and
bauxite processing releases a toxic red sludge that can seep into water
supplies if not adequately contained. Several senior Vietnamese scientists
as well as Vietnam's burgeoning green movement have questioned the wisdom of
giving mining rights to China, whose own mines were shut down because of the
massive damage they caused to the environment.
But the real opposition appears to have less to do with the environment and
more to do with Vietnam's fear of its neighbor on the country's northern
border. Nationalist groups accuse Hanoi of caving in to pressure from
commodities-hungry China by allowing the mining project to go forward.
Bloggers are whipping up fears that the influx of Chinese workers is part of
Beijing's long-term strategy to occupy their country. Banned pro-democracy
groups, which are happy for any opportunity to criticize the authoritarian
government, call the mining venture an "ill-begotten scheme." Earlier this
month, a dissident Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Do, said that strip mining
will destroy the way of life of the region's ethnic minorities. He added
that the project created "an illustration of Vietnam's dependence on China."
There has been no such outcry against U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa's plans to
mine two sites in Dak Nong province in the Central Highlands.
Perhaps the most unexpected criticism has come from General Vo Nguyen Giap,
a revered Vietnamese military leader who helped defeat the French and later
the Americans. In a letter to Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the
97-year-old war hero voiced concern over the presence of large numbers of
Chinese in the Central Highlands, which is a strategic gateway to Vietnam,
one where battles have been won and lost.
Other countries in the region are made uneasy by China's thirst for
resources. Last month, the Australian government rejected a $1.8 billion bid
by Chinese mining company Minmetals to acquire debt-ridden OZ Minerals, the
world's second-biggest zinc miner, due to national security concerns. OZ
Minerals has operations near Australia's Woomera weapons testing site.
The Hanoi government says it is listening to concerns but it appears to be
unmoved. Dung recently declared bauxite mining a "major policy of the party
and the state." Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai reaffirmed the
government's support, and several local provincial officials were on hand at
a recent mining conference to defend the project, arguing that despite the
presence of the Chinese workers, development will benefit the impoverished
ethnic minorities who live in the region.
The pressure on Vietnam to proceed as planned is enormous, says Carl A.
Thayer, a Vietnam expert who teaches at the University of New South Wales'
Australian Defense Force Academy. Vietnam needs to trade with China, the
world's third-largest economy, to survive. Thayer acknowledges that no
Chinese company operates independently of the government. "If you go up far
enough you will find a military or a security connection," he says. "But
Chinese occupation? I don't believe that."
Some of the problems are of Vietnam's own making, observes Thayer. The
country has become increasingly dependent on foreign direct investment to
buoy its economy. Last year, overseas investors sunk a record $11.5 billion
into Vietnam. China last year had 73 investment projects worth $334 million
in the country. But in the wake of the global recession, foreign direct
investment plummeted 70% in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same
time period last year.
Hanoi has been calling for increased investment, and is even more desperate
for external cash infusions now that its economy has flatlined. Vietnam has
also racked up a massive trade deficit with China. As more Chinese companies
venture across the border and sink millions into new investment projects,
Hanoi can't dictate all the terms. Nor can they just close the spigot. "The
Vietnamese have to be careful of what they wish for," says Thayer.
More information about the general_devel