Domestic Protests and Foreign Policy: An Examination of Anti-China Protests in Vietnam and Vietnamese Policy Towards China Regarding the South China Sea

AuthorPhuong Hoang
DOI10.1177/2347797019826747
Published date01 April 2019
Date01 April 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Domestic Protests
and Foreign Policy:
An Examination of
Anti-China Protests
in Vietnam and
Vietnamese Policy
Towards China Regarding
the South China Sea
Phuong Hoang1
Abstract
The Sino-Vietnamese relationship is characterized by asymmetry, yet Vietnam’s
post-Cold War foreign policy towards China encompasses three paradigms: (a)
internal and external balancing against China, (b) greater international integration
to prevent political and economic dependence on China and (c) ‘cooperation’
with China on mutual interests while ‘struggling’ against China’s encroachment
on Vietnam’s sovereignty. The ongoing dispute in the South China Sea presents
a primary security concern for Vietnam as well as a challenge to its bilateral rela-
tions with China, particularly as maritime tensions provoke nationalist and anti-
China protests among the Vietnamese public. This article presents an analysis
of anti-China protests in Vietnam that resulted from South China Sea tensions
between 2007 and 2017 in order to examine whether the protests—which are
rare in Vietnam—had any effect on Vietnam’s foreign policy towards China. The
findings reveal that the protests did not result in a change in Vietnam’s foreign
policy towards China both during the maritime crises or in the long term.
Keywords
China, South China Sea, Vietnam, protest, foreign policy
1 National Intelligence University, Washington, DC, USA.
Corresponding author:
Phuong Hoang, National Intelligence University, Washington, DC, USA.
E-mail: phuong.hoang@dodiis.mil
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
6(1) 1–29, 2019
The Author(s) 2019
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/2347797019826747
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2 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 6(1)
Introduction
Vietnam’s foreign policy towards China has evolved throughout history in
response to both external power dynamics and internal political change. In the
present day, the ongoing dispute between Vietnam and China in the South China
Sea poses a primary security challenge for Vietnam and is a key factor influencing
Vietnam’s foreign policy towards China. Recent Chinese efforts to solidify
sovereignty over its South China Sea claims have reaffirmed Vietnam’s
longstanding perception of China as an assertive and expansionist northern
neighbour, while stirring anti-Chinese unrest among the Vietnamese public. The
anti-China backlash was first evident in 2011 after a Chinese surveillance vessel
cut the cables of a Vietnamese ship conducting seismic research in the South
China Sea. As a result, hundreds of Vietnamese took to the streets in sustained
protests against China. Large-scale and violent anti-China demonstrations
occurred again in Vietnam in 2014 after China stationed the Haiyang Shiyou 981,
an oil rig operated by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, in Vietnam’s
exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the disputed Paracel Islands.
In authoritarian Vietnam, where political demonstrations are repressed, the
occurrence of these rare protests during Sino-Vietnamese confrontations on the
South China Sea begs the question: What, if any, impact did anti-China protests in
Vietnam have on Vietnamese foreign policy towards China regarding the South
China Sea in both the short and long term? To examine whether anti-China
protests have shifted Vietnamese foreign policy towards China, this article
consists of three sections. The first section discusses the evolution of Vietnamese
foreign policy towards China and engages the existing research on the relationship
between domestic protests and foreign policy. The second section analyses the
incidents in which anti-China protests erupted in Vietnam between 2007 and 2017
as a result of the South China Sea disputes. Through a comprehensive analysis of
media coverage, this section traces the protests and provides a detailed timeline of
(a) the initial maritime confrontation that precipitated the protests, (b) the
development of anti-China protests in Vietnam, (c) the Vietnamese government’s
reaction to the protests, (d) the Vietnamese government’s reaction to the dispute
with China and (e) the mutual resolution or agreement ending the incident between
Vietnam and China. Finally, the article concludes with a discussion on the
implications of anti-China protests on Vietnam’s foreign policy towards China
regarding the South China Sea.
The Evolution of Vietnamese Foreign Policy
Towards China
Ever since Vietnam gained independence in 939 AD after about a millennium of
Chinese rule, Vietnamese foreign policy has centred around its larger and more
powerful northern neighbour. The immutable asymmetry in size and capacity in
favour of China has inevitably defined the Sino-Vietnamese relationship

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