HANOI, VIETNAM - Hundreds stood to sing Vietnam’s national anthem Friday morning during a ceremony in Hanoi to mark the peace agreement that brought an end to French colonial rule and partitioned the country.
The accords stated that elections would be held in 1956 to decide on a national government and in the meantime the country would be split in two - north and south - along the 17th parallel. However, the elections were never held and a decade later American troops arrived in Saigon to support the South in its war against the Communist North.
President Truong Tan Sang said the accords were an important milestone for national independence and unification, and provided lessons in "promoting the role of diplomacy, increasing dialogues and using peaceful measures to settle disputes in international relations in accordance with international law."
South China Sea
He said recent threats to national sovereignty in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam, pose a “considerable challenge” to national independence and added that lessons could be learned from the Geneva Accords.
In the last few months, Vietnam has been involved in a tense stand-off with China over an oil rig deployed in waters both countries claim as their own. The dispute is rooted in their claims to the Paracel islands, known as Hoang Sa in Vietnamese and Xisha in Chinese.
Part of Vietnam’s case for ownership of the archipelago, referenced in local media, is that the French considered the islands part of their colonial territory.
Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Australia said, "In 1955 it became the Republic of Vietnam as the result of elections and the Republic of Vietnam had jurisdiction over the Spratly and Paracel islands because they were below the 17th parallel. Between 1954 and 1956 the French vacated these islands and let the Republic of Vietnam put its military forces there."
Some Vietnamese commentators claim that because China was present at the Geneva Accords, this meant they recognized Vietnamese sovereignty over the islands. But with no signed statement from China, Thayer said this claim is “a stretch”.
Tensions between the two countries relaxed a little Wednesday when China moved the $1-billion oil drilling platform to waters near Hainan island. China’s Foreign Ministry said the move was in accordance with commercial plans and not related to any outside factors.
Jennifer Richmond, China Director at U.S.-based global intelligence company Stratfor, said she thinks it is a matter of time before this issue surfaces again.
"You might see a rig coming and going, but you will continue to see these tactics, not only with Vietnam, but anyone else, the Philippines."
Many believe the South China Sea to be rich in oil and gas reserves, but Richmond believes there are other factors at work besides this.
"The issue of Vietnam is a tool that’s used by journalists politically in China to drum up nationalism. So does the average person really fret about Vietnam or think Vietnam is a threat? No. But the government can use this to push the national agenda, absolutely, and they do," she said.
Richmond said she has never seen China politically stronger. For this reason she said it is unlikely the territorial dispute in the South China Sea will abate any time soon.