A series of incidents involving Chinese tourists in Vietnam is keeping a deep maritime sovereignty dispute in focus despite official efforts to improve relations.
Last week 14 Chinese tourists wearing the same red-on-white T-shirts bearing a map of their county's claim passed through immigration in the central Vietnamese province of Khanh Hoa.
Immigration agents confiscated the shirts as Vietnamese voiced outrage online toward the tourists. The backs of the shirts showed the nine-dash line that demarcates Beijing’s claim to the contested South China Sea, lopping off waters that Vietnam says are its own.
This incident is at least the fourth involving Chinese tourists over the past two years. These flaps mean China is using its soft power to remind Vietnam of the dispute and that Vietnam remains as angry now as ever, experts say.
“If we look at the broader picture, we can see that the Chinese government might increasingly use civilians as a way to spread their sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, from militia fishermen to uber-nationalist southbound tourists,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
String of incidents
China and Vietnam, already distrustful after a border war in the 1970s, dispute tracts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea that’s rich in fisheries, oil and gas. China commands the more powerful armed forces and has militarized islets in the contested tracts of sea.
In 2016, the tourist city of Da Nang suspended the business license of a travel agency because it offered travel services to Chinese visitors who burned Vietnamese currency, the VnExpress International news website said.
Also that year, China asked Vietnam to investigate whether immigration agents had penned profanity into the passport of a Chinese visitor to Ho Chi Minh City.
Chinese tour guides have also entered Vietnam to spread anti-Vietnamese information about history to tour groups, the news website said in 2016. The Immigration Administration vowed then to deport any it finds.
Communist parties in Vietnam and China encourage a sense of patriotism that provokes angry responses when offended, raising the odds of these incidents and strong follow-up reactions, scholars say.
“Because people in these various countries, they have been educated according to their various nationalist traditions, thereby of course they would think that those disputed territories unquestionably belong to them and therefore all others are sort of occupiers and should be gotten rid of as soon as possible,” said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University.
China has historically encouraged citizens to promote official foreign policy when overseas and particularly “correct world mis-impressions” of China, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“All kinds of private activities coming out of China are seen as propaganda,” Chong said. “It’s all in their history.”
Vietnam took the T-shirt incident in this spirit. The chairman of the Government Office in Vietnam called it “an organized act, prepared and arranged with bad intentions instead of a random, spontaneous act by the individual tourists,” VnExpress International said.
Chinese tourists to Vietnam numbered about 4 million last year, up 49 percent over 2016, China’s Xinhua News Agency said.
Calm at the official level
Officials from the two neighboring countries are trying to get along even as tourists bring out the unresolved maritime dispute.
China and Vietnam have held defense talks, exchanged state visits and met at the party-to-party level regularly since 2014. That year the two sides rammed each other’s boats as China allowed an oil firm to position a rig in a disputed tract of the sea. Common Vietnamese rioted then against China.
Deadly naval clashes erupted between the two sides in 1974 and 1988 over maritime claims.
Officials in Beijing see Vietnam as a key economic link to Southeast Asia, said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi. The link would be part of China's five-year-old, 65-country Belt-and-Road initiative aimed at building infrastructure to foster trade routes.
Vietnam looks to China as a top trading partner and Chinese tourism supports its service sector.
“I think the Vietnamese don’t want to antagonize for no purpose the Chinese,” McCarty said. “There will still be some on both sides who are overtly nationalistic and trying to push issues with these silly T-shirts. I think the Vietnamese government (is) not going to be provoked by that.”
The Vietnamese government is trying to “compartmentalize" the T-shirt issue to avoid undermining two-way relations as a whole, Nguyen said.