China, Vietnam and the islands dispute: What is behind the rise of Chinese nationalism?

By Michael Karadjis

February 2, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Over the last year or so, tensions have been heightened in the dispute over two island groups in the South China Sea (also known as the East Sea in Vietnam), involving rival claims to some or all of the islands by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and even Brunei. The first three of these countries claim all of both island groups.

The islands in question are known in English as the Paracels and the Spratlys, in Vietnamese as the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, and in Chinese as the Xisha and the Nansha. Both island groups are uninhabited rocky islands and reefs; there is neither a Vietnamese population oppressed by the current Chinese occupation of the Hoang Sa nor a Chinese population oppressed by Vietnamese rule over most of the Truong Sa. Thus there are no questions of self-determination of actual peoples. Therefore, international law would seem to be the best way to judge the status question, unless further negotiations settle things differently.

Since international law is on the side of Vietnamese sovereignty, as will be shown below, this article will use the Vietnamese terms Hoang Sa and Truong Sa for the sake of simplicity. The Hoang Sa are the more northerly group, approximately equidistant from the central coast of Vietnam to their west and the far south Chinese island of Hai Nam to their north (hundreds of kilometres from both); the Truong Sa are far south of this, nowhere near China, off the south central coast of Vietnam but also a similar distance to the closest points in Malaysia in the south and the Philippines in the east.

At the outset, however, I wish to stress that the actual question of sovereignty is less important than the differing ways that China and Vietnam have treated the issue. Indeed, if someone were to say to me, “What does it matter who legally owns a bunch of rocky, uninhabited islands? Surely the dispute is about potential oil deposits underneath. The surrounding countries should jointly exploit them and share the potential wealth if it is shown to exist, or perhaps leave the regional environment alone”, I would say, “I agree completely.”

But I believe the Vietnamese government has a better stance, separate to my own sympathies, and its correctness is based on international law. Because the Vietnamese government is opposed to the militarisation of the conflict, believes that the defence of uninhabited islands can only be carried out diplomatically and that it is not worth a single soldier’s life. Vietnam clearly lacks the military power to enforce its rights anyway.

By contrast, the Chinese government does have the means to militarily enforce its imperial designs and is doing so aggressively. Its policy has consisted of military aggression, in 1956, 1974 and 1988, to seize the islands, and in recent years its growing militarisation of the dispute and aggressive actions towards Vietnamese people, mostly poor fisherfolk, on these seas, is pushing a confrontation regardless of what one thinks of the worth of fighting over the islands’ status. In the last few years, China has:

  • moved its war fleet into both groups of islands as a permanent fixture, with activities that include mass kidnapping of Vietnamese fisherfolk for ransom
  • declared that the two island groups now occupy the same strategic position in China’s international affairs as do Taiwan and Tibet, that is, something close to a declaration of war on Vietnam
  • created a new province in southern China incorporating the two island groups.

To make this clear, it is well worth examining the gravity of this situation. In 2010, Chinese society was mobilised in a nationalistic paroxysm against Japan when just one Chinese captain was detained by the Japanese navy in another island group that is disputed between China and Japan. The nature of China’s aggression in the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa – and the extraordinary level of double standards shown by Beijing – was captured vividly in this piece by Greg Torode in the South China Morning Post in reference to this other issue with Japan:

With apologies to John Lennon, imagine that the Chinese fishing trawler captain now in detention in Japan was not a lone individual, but one of several hundred fishermen captured and held over the past 18 months or so. Imagine, too, that some of their boats had been rammed and sunk by Japanese patrols; others, meanwhile, had their catches seized.

Or that once in detention, at times for months, Japan had offered their release only after the payment of thousands of dollars per head. Their government objected to the payment of ransoms, but some families were so desperate to see their fathers, sons and husbands that they quietly paid up. Rumours spread that some had been shot.

I put such a scenario to a mainland student friend. He was shocked. "I cannot even imagine the outcome", he said. "There would be such anger against the Japanese government that I cannot believe that ordinary Japanese would be safe in China". Certainly it does not bear thinking about, given the feverish pitch to the diplomatic and social pressure now building on Tokyo over the continued detention of the captain.

Yet this scenario has happened, but not involving Japanese patrols against Chinese fishing boats over the disputed islets of the East China Sea. Instead, it represents the actions taken by Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea against Vietnamese fishermen. Instead of the Diaoyu Islands, most of the detentions have taken place in waters surrounding the Paracel archipelago – claimed by both countries but occupied by China since 1974.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry has lodged formal protests while its state press, a less sophisticated but equally unsubtle variant of the mainland model, has churned out tales of woe from grieving relatives waiting for news. Under pressure from annoyed Chinese diplomats, Vietnamese government officials have tried to keep nationalistic tensions from spilling over into street protests.

This description is accurate in all respects – indeed, the ransoms demanded can be US$10,000 for one person. It goes without saying that the Chinese war fleet does not really feel so threatened by dirt-poor Vietnamese fisherfolk that such military action would be required, even if the islands in question were indisputably Chinese; it further goes without question that the mighty Chinese navy does not need these ransoms as a fundraiser. There is one reason for these actions: to humiliate, to show who is boss. And that is the kind of action that becomes necessary when a large capitalist power, such as China, begins to develop into a new imperial power in its own right. While that is another more complex issue, it is clearly related and ultimately is a question that will need to be confronted.

In any case, there is clearly going to be no “sharing” of any resources as long as China has its way, because that is a socialist concept, utterly foreign to the current Chinese leadership.

Now all that does not mean – to knock out a red herring – that socialists in the West should start launching public campaigns against “Chinese imperialism”, that we should be putting “Down with China!” on the front pages of our newspapers and campaigning in the streets. Our main enemy is at home, and in as much as Australia is connected to US imperialism, our key focus will always be – as it always has been – denouncing and exposing US imperialism. Note, of course, that in Australia’s case, our ruling class is somewhat more equidistant between the US and China, so it’s not that simple, but still is basically with the US. And all this also assumes some great clash between the US and China, which in my opinion is also overstated – there is clearly rivalry, but also a great deal of cooperation.

Nevertheless, the main point remains – denouncing China is hardly our main public concern. And for the record, though China may be morphing into an emerging imperial power in its own right, I would still strongly defend China from any direct attack by US imperialism.


However, socialists are allowed to discuss our views on things that do not go on the front covers of our campaign material, in order to understand the world. Yet there has been a certain reaction from some quarters of the left to even discussing the issue; simply to do so can be greeted with accusations of “Sinophobia” (in the same way that any criticism of Israel is labelled by Zionists “anti-Semitism”) or of being unwitting servants of US imperialism. This way of thinking is often referred to as “Manichean”, that is, a biblical view whereby the world is divided into Good and Bad, so if it happens that some tyrannical capitalist regime falls out of favour with US imperialism for reasons having nothing to do with anything progressive, then such a regime is seen as having a silver lining, and criticism of it is henceforth banned. Such views are an embarrassment to those spouting them and an affront to socialism, and reflect an inability to cope with “complex” ideas such as Marxist analysis.

However, Manicheans can often get away with it by posing as thus being “anti-imperialist holier-than-thou” in an attempt to shut up their critics (e.g., “How dare you criticise Milosevic or Mugabe or the Burmese junta when US imperialism is also against them” etc., and other such arguments). But the problem for them in this case is that, since they have now decided that China’s current rivalry with the US makes everything China does Good, they find themselves in a most uncomfortable situation of being in direct opposition to the martyr socialist nation Vietnam, which waged the longest anti-imperialist war in history; a nation that they would also prefer not to criticise. Because it is none other than Vietnam – not capitalist Indonesia, Malaysia or elsewhere – that is in the front of the firing line of the implications of capitalist China’s growing emergence as an imperial power.

It must be a rather uncomfortable position to be in to feel forced to choose between two countries that many of these people consider to be socialist, let alone siding with the position of the one that is far richer, far more powerful on a world scale, and the one that has violated Vietnam’s sovereignty numerous times in the past, usually in open collaboration with imperialism. Indeed, China invaded Vietnam in the recent past with the direct support of US imperialism. China is currently moving its capital all over the developing world and replicating typically exploitative patterns well-worn by the imperialist powers before it. It must also be a rather uncomfortable position to be to stand with China against the position of a weak, bombed-back-to-the-stone-age, developing socialist country, even though Beijing is the first to militarise the conflict and push greater-power nationalism, while Vietnam is opposed to such militarisation and is trying to contain the partially justified local nationalism rising over the issue.

So keep this context in mind as we now analyse the actual issue in dispute.


One way of dealing with this problem is to pretend it does not exist and hope it goes away. A more unique way was recently presented on the Green Left discussion list. This was to openly take China’s position in the dispute, but in order to avoid the Vietnam elephant in the room, to also pretend that the Vietnamese government agrees with China’s view! While one particular post to a discussion list may be of little consequence, it is useful to quote it as an example of the problem while introducing some of the propaganda put out by the Chinese regime. The post read in part:

As for all your smoke and mirrors and pretend concern for the "poor Vietnamese fishermen" it would be more useful if you had looked for the views of the Vietnamese government itself on the subject of the Xisha and Nansha Islands.

Nhan Dan of Viet Nam reported in great detail on September 6, 1958, the Chinese Government’s Declaration of September 4, 1958, that the breadth of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China should be 12 nautical miles and that this provision should apply to all territories of the People’s Republic of China, including all islands on the South China Sea. On September 14 the same year, Premier Pham Van Dong of the Vietnamese Government solemnly stated in his note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Viet Nam "recognizes and supports the Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China on China's territorial sea".

It is somewhat extraordinary that in order to “prove” such an absurd proposition, someone would quote what they think a Vietnamese prime minister said in 1958, 52 years ago, as evidence of the Vietnamese government’s view. But it is not so absurd when we consider that the poster got this quote from a Chinese propaganda site, and the reason the Chinese site needs to go back to 1958 is that there is simply nothing else in the intervening years to quote.

I will spare readers even a single quote from any Vietnamese government or Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) declaration from 2010, or 2000, or 1990, or 1980, or 1970 or any other time, because anyone who wants to know Vietnam’s view on the two island groups only has to Google for a minute or so to understand why the poster in question had to go back as far as 1958 to find a quote he thought justified his assertion.

But anyway, let’s now look at the propaganda itself, as an introduction to the development of the issue in the modern era.

Yes, China did make that declaration on September 4, 1958. Yes, Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong did make that diplomatic reply 10 days later. I have the whole text of the reply. Yes, it supports China extending its territorial waters to 12 miles. But the reply studiously avoids saying anything about that part of the contents of the Chinese declaration which defines China’s territory as including the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. For the sake of clarity, the islands are hundreds of miles away from China, so are not covered by China’s 12-mile territorial water boundaries, that is a separate issue; it just happens that the Chinese government used this declaration to push both issues. The non-mention of this part of China’s declaration in Pham Van Dong’s letter is very significant.

Nevertheless, why would Pham Van Dong write this diplomatic letter in such a way that has enabled both Chinese, and as we will see below, Vietnamese chauvinists and reactionaries to use it against Vietnam and the CPV? First we need to understand the context.


In 1954, under massive Soviet and Chinese pressure, the CPV government in Hanoi signed the Geneva Accords, temporarily dividing Vietnam into north and south, with the proviso that elections would be held in 1956 to reunify the country. If the division had been drawn at where the actual forces on the ground had stopped fighting, the CPV-led (Vietminh) forces would have had about three-quarters of the country, not half. By 1956, the US and the puppet Diem regime installed in the south had cancelled the elections because it knew it would have resulted in an overwhelming vote for the CPV across both north and south.

These Geneva Accords defined Vietnamese territory as including both the Hoang Sa and the Truong Sa island groups. These accords were signed by China. Thus the last actual international treaty signed by both Vietnam and China on this issue clearly defined these island groups as Vietnamese. This is thus the standing international law. The reason both island groups were declared part of Vietnam’s territory was because they were part of the Vietnam colony of French imperialism, which had just been defeated by the Vietminh in 1954. The reason they were part of the French colony of Vietnam was not because France had conquered them from some mythical Chinese rule in the 19th century but, on the contrary, because the two island groups were a well-established part of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty long before the arrival of the French, and the islands’ resources had been exploited by Vietnam’s Hoang Sa company since the 18th century. So France naturally got them by invading Vietnam. This is the modern history of the islands. As for whether Chinese maritime expeditions in the islands from the time of the “Song Dynasty” some 1000 years ago can be said to constitute some mythical prior Chinese “sovereignty” will be touched on in the section below on nationalism.

Getting back to the 20th century, the two archipelagos were put under the temporary control of “south Vietnam” in 1954. Once the US/Saigon cancelled the elections and launched barbarous attacks on the CPV-led Vietminh forces in the south, forcing the latter to re-launch the struggle some years later, the new CPV-led formations (in the south), the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) and National Liberation Front (NLF), declared their aim to be the liberation of the whole territory of “south Vietnam” as defined in Geneva. They never said anything about giving part of their territory to China.

However, in the late 1950s, just as the US/Diem regime was resuming its aggression in the south, backed by US arms and “advisors”, China sent its navy to seize the eastern part of the Hoang Sa, despite its signature at Geneva. Incidentally, at the same time Taiwan also laid claim to the islands and moved in and seized one of the larger islands in the Truong Sa – China and Taiwan may have been enemies, but preying on a weakened Vietnam was something they had in common.

Under this two-pronged pressure, Vietnam, seeing imperialism as its main enemy, wanted to soften things with China by not openly confronting it over its seizure of these islands; thus Dong’s letter simply avoided the issue.

But since US imperialism was also confronting China in this period, the Vietnamese government was completely sincere in agreeing with China’s extension of its territorial waters to 12 miles as a protective measure – thus Dong’s letter was not just diplomatic, but an act of solidarity, despite China’s clear lack of solidarity in seizing the islands while Vietnam was at war with imperialism and putting its renewed claim to the islands into this same declaration. Vietnam refused to play by the rules of anti-solidaristic Maoist tradition.

US-China anti-Vietnam alliance

China’s military conquest of the western part of the Hoang Sa in 1974 was even worse. Just as the most barbarous war against any country in history was coming to a close, and following US President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing at the height of the US genocide against Vietnam to announce the Maoist regime’s cynical betrayal, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with China’s leaders. Given that by late 1974 it was clear to the US that Saigon would fall, and socialist Vietnam would thus inherit the islands, Kissinger gave the green light to “socialist” China to launch a full-scale military attack on the positions of his capitalist Saigon allies in the western Hoang Sa. So Chinese and Vietnamese troops were killed as part of a Machiavellian plan to prevent the coming unified socialist Vietnam from controlling the islands, and to kick sand in Hanoi’s face.

This US-China anti-Vietnam alliance stepped up in the second half of the 1970s and 1980s (including China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam and joint US-Chinese backing of the genocidal Khmer Rouge’s war against Vietnam and the Cambodian people), and it incorporated all the US-backed capitalist military dictatorships of South-East Asia in an effort to strangle the Vietnamese revolution. In this context, first the Philippines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then Malaysia in the mid-1980s, also militarily seized eight islands and three islands respectively of the Truong Sa (Spratleys) from Vietnam, while Taiwan also re-stated its claims. Then, in 1988, China again launched a full-scale naval attack against socialist Vietnam and seized six islands of the Truong Sa.

At present, the whole of the Hoang Sa is under Chinese occupation, while Vietnam controls most of the Truong Sa (21 islands), China controls six islands, the Philippines eight, Malaysia three and Taiwan one.

Vietnam’s reaction: Stand firm, but avoid nationalism

What then of Vietnam’s reaction to all this? Is Vietnam similarly just beating nationalist drums over a bunch of rocks? In fact, if we go back to the last paragraph quoted above from the Greg Torode article on the Chinese navy’s kidnapping of Vietnamese fisherfolk, we read:

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has lodged formal protests while its state press, a less sophisticated but equally unsubtle variant of the mainland model, has churned out tales of woe from grieving relatives waiting for news. Under pressure from annoyed Chinese diplomats, Vietnamese government officials have tried to keep nationalistic tensions from spilling over into street protests.

The indicates how differently Vietnam reacts – trying to keep down the nationalistic reaction – despite the massively greater provocation compared with the detention of a single Chinese captain by Japan, which produced a highly nationalistic response from the Chinese government. This difference regarding nationalism is a class difference.

And that is why I also oppose the “dissident” Vietnamese opposition. Indeed, going back to the famous Pham Van Dong letter of 1958, the distortion of this letter by Chinese propaganda mirrors the exact same distortion of it by right-wing Vietnamese “dissidents” and overseas reactionaries, who for years now have been campaigning for Vietnam to take a “tougher line” with China over the islands, and claim that the CPV is a “puppet” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and a betrayer of Vietnam (wow, they should talk). They also seize on this letter to justify their views on alleged CPV treachery.

But since the CPV in fact continually and unambiguously claims the islands are Vietnamese, the only thing the right wing can really be objecting to is the Vietnamese government’s other view, that there is no military solution. The “dissidents” have thus turned themselves into the national chauvinist camp and are essentially advocating war with China. The difference between China and Vietnam on this issue is not so much who is right or wrong on the legal issues, but rather the fact that the equivalent of these Vietnamese chauvinists are already in power in Beijing.

They are playing the nationalist card because it is now available. Some sections of the “dissidents” are even ridiculously calling for a boycott of Chinese goods! However, this nationalist sentiment is being made available to the “dissidents” by China’s actions, as well as many of its exploitative investment practices inside Vietnam and other issues. It is not only the islands. China has become a major investor in Vietnam, and like other foreign capitalist investors, many investments show little regard for any social or environmental concerns. Like other investors, Chinese businesses develop special financial relations with certain politicians and sections of the state and government to push their business interests. That makes them no different to any other, but the fact that China is a giant neighbour with a history of aggression against Vietnam and a current bad policy on the islands tends to make Vietnamese more leery of the Chinese variety, however “unfair” that may seem to some well-meaning Western anti-imperialists.

In terms of labour, Chinese investors, like elsewhere in the Third World, import an army of skilled Chinese workers, leaving only jobs like sweepers for the Vietnamese, thus even the usual “employment gains” or skills development associated with foreign investment are largely missing. Chinese bosses in Vietnam openly say they prefer their own workers – who they can keep barrack-style away from Vietnamese labour laws – to “lazy” and “undisciplined” Vietnamese workers, i.e., workers who are more likely to strike and less likely to take shit from the boss than the imported workers, who are totally dependent on the bosses.

Also China’s massive damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong River in China itself, and also in Laos, Burma and Cambodia, is having a dramatic effect on downstream agriculture, and the most downstream is Vietnam’s Mekong rice bowl.

In a recent conversation with a friend who has a relative in the border police, a marked change of attitude of Chinese police in recent years was reported. A big problem in Vietnam is the smuggling of women and children to China. The guard reports a markedly reduced level of cooperation – Vietnam tells the Chinese police exactly which village a girl has been taken to, but the Chinese side at best brings back the girl but does nothing about the criminals responsible, who are sometimes found trying to re-enter Vietnam; at worst Chinese police do not even rescue the girl. Exaggerations? Perhaps? Anecdotal? Perhaps? But we need to recognise in such stories real feelings and beliefs among Vietnamese that are not entirely baseless. My friend’s point was not that Chinese police are evil and approve of this horrible trade. It was that this marked change of attitude to any honest and equal cooperation with Vietnamese police – like the deliberate and pointless humiliation at sea – was an attitude that reflects the rise of an imperial power that needs to demonstrate who is boss.

Ecological destruction fuels hostility

A major issue now is the massive bauxite-aluminium development in Vietnam’s central highlands, which is set to destroy the ecology of this region and wreck the lives of the ethnic minorities who live there. There is massive opposition in Vietnam to this development, including from many prominent scientists, from many in the National Assembly, from sections of the army and CPV, and from people more generally. No less than General Vo Nguyen Giap has written three open letters to the Vietnamese government protesting this development. Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, of 1972 Paris negotiations fame, has also signed one of the many petitions against it.

The foreign investor responsible is a huge Chinese company. In my opinion, that in itself should be irrelevant. The objection is environmental; it matters not which foreign investors are involved, and the Vietnamese state mining company is the local partner in any case. However, the nature of Chinese company labour practices described above has given an extra “security” angle to all this – the central highlands have vast strategic significance, being the region where the US-backed southern regime was decisively defeated in 1974-75. With China’s generally aggressive stance, having thousands of Chinese skilled workers barracked in the region under Chinese bosses with little or no reference to Vietnamese authorities has raised alarm bells.

Now I have something of a problem with this; it bends a little in the nationalist direction I am opposed to; and the “dissident” right wing is exploiting the issue. However, General Giap is not someone who can easily be classified as a simple-minded anti-China nationalist – his main objection is environmental, having been a strong partisan of the environment since the 1980s – but he has also spoken out on the “security” aspect, reflecting a widespread apprehension among war veterans, and the fact of his opinion is reason enough to at least take it seriously.

It is the Vietnamese government that is trying to contain all the popular nationalism associated with all these issues, which has some justice as its basis due to China’s actions, but which also has an ugly and reactionary potential of its own, like the kind now ruling China. Far from using the islands to promote an opposing nationalism, the Vietnamese government has, if anything, tended to overreact against this current, arresting countless bloggers and the like who peacefully spread their anti-China views, rather than confronting them politically. The government has also prevented anti-China demonstrations (in contrast to the weeks of anti-US demonstrations at the outset of the invasion of Iraq), and is still going out of its way to cultivate close political, economic, military and ideological relations with its powerful northern neighbour despite China’s open cynicism in these relations.

For example, when another poster on the Green Left discussion list tried to paint the recent visit by a US warship to Vietnam as the beginning of a US-Vietnam anti-China alliance, I was able to point to the absurdity of this by showing that, despite China’s aggressiveness, Vietnam has carried out nine full-scale sets of military naval manoeuvres with the Chinese navy in the region in recent years, all much more fully military exercises than the symbolic search and rescue exercise (and bi-cultural cooking lessons) on the US ship. Vietnam certainly has the right to manoeuvre, but the US ship visit was but one minor aspect of this; its far greater relations with China itself are also a necessary manoeuvre in its own way; and buying advanced military submarines from Russia, giving Russia the contract to build Vietnam’s first nuclear plant, and choosing Russian consultants and Russian technology to develop the former US base of Cam Ranh Bay into a service centre to repair submarines and civil and military vessels, represent another angle, that are likewise inconsistent with becoming a US ally.

There is plenty to criticise the Vietnamese government for, but its stance on this issue is not one of them.

Nationalism and class: National chauvinism of a rising imperial power

Which leads to me to a point about nationalism and class. Nationalism, in my admittedly harsh opinion, is the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and is essentially anti-working class and anti-internationalist, except when there is a genuine national struggle against oppression and only in as much as such “nationalism of the oppressed” temporarily aids that struggle and no further.

Internationalism is the ideology compatible with socialism. We have seen time and again that when nations have thrown off their failed bureaucratic state socialist projects, the emergent bourgeoisie has tended to adopt nationalism as its ideology, feeling the need for an ideology to preserve some kind of cross-class “national unity” when the old socialist and internationalist ideology is no longer relevant, and their class interests can no longer be contained even with the pretense of official socialist ideology. As 20 years of market socialism were coming to an end in the Yugoslav federation in the mid-1980s, we saw first the rise of a primitive, aggressive bourgeois national chauvinism in the dominant nation, Serbia, and soon after in the second most dominant nation, Croatia, both being expressions of the capitalist class that had arisen out of market socialism.

The fact that China is more advanced along the capitalist path than Vietnam is, in my opinion, reflected in this more aggressive nationalist position of the Chinese leadership, in sharp contrast to the Vietnamese CP’s attempt to battle this nationalism in Vietnam.

In 2006, this need to build a reactionary nationalism to replace socialism as a unifying ideology – when socialism has become irrelevant – was explained in unusually stark terms in an official Chinese journal, China and World Affairs, by Lin Zhibo, a deputy director of the commentary department of the official People’s Daily. This is from the WSWS site, which I wouldn’t usually quote, but as this is direct from the Chinese journal, it speaks for itself. First, regarding the paroxysm of chauvinism in both China and Japan in 2005, when Chinese mobs attacked Japanese civilian property in China in response to Japan’s fascistic revisionism about WWII in its textbooks, he wrote:  

Our one-sided efforts at friendship [with Japan] have been totally useless. Chinese-Japanese relations will be better handled only if China’s stance is tougher than now. It’s not a totally bad thing to have an enemy country. Mencius [the ancient Chinese philosopher] said, “Without foes and external threats, a state will surely perish”. Having an enemy country and external peril forces us to strengthen ourselves.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, Lin Zhibo got even more theoretical about it, noting that, in the context of growing social inequality and the fact that the Communist Party can no longer claim to be socialist:

Today in China an ideological vacuum is emerging. What can China rely on for cohesion? I believe that apart from nationalism, there is no other recourse.

This rising bourgeois nationalism was evident not only in that conflict with Japan, but also, several months ago, in a similar mass event, over -- ironically enough -- the Japanese capture of one Chinese national in other islands disputed between Japan and China discussed above, and especially in the anti-Tibetan hysteria over the issue of the Olympic torch, when the whole of the bourgeois Chinese “dissident” blogosphere, which would normally be anti-CCP, swung into full “national” mood right behind the CCP.

Before concluding, I just want to extend the discussion of nationalism a little. The Chinese propaganda quoted above, apart from referring to the famous Pham Van Dong letter of 1958, also made the following claim:

Vice Foreign Minister Dung Van Khiem of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam received Mr. Li Zhimin, charge d'affaires ad interim of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam and told him that "according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory." Mr. Le Doc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was present then, added that "judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.

Now I can find no references to judge whether this is even true, and nor is there any reference to which decade these alleged statements were made. However, the reference to the “Democratic Republic if Vietnam” suggests this was during the war years, when Vietnamese diplomats may have felt the need to be over-diplomatic to China at times. So let’s just assume the statements did in fact happen.

First, being “historically” part of Chinese territory has no meaning. Southern Vietnam was “historically” part of Cambodia, the empire of Angkor, in the 13th century. Vietnam itself was “historically” part of China, for a cool 1000 years up to around 1000 AD. Thus that diplomatic nicety was in fact saying nothing. Moreover, the second statement further stresses this point; by referring to the Song Dynasty, of some 1000 years ago, Le Doc was able to trivialise the Chinese claim while appearing to be diplomatic about it.

Let’s be clear: even in the Song Dynasty, the main evidence is Chinese maritime expeditions in the islands. That tells us nothing about any “sovereignty” of the Chinese empire at the time. Clearly, Chinese people never settled the islands. In any case, there are many Chinese maps over the last 1000 years which show the southern end of China’s border to be the large Chinese island of Hai Nam, and not including either island archipelago. Even the vague Chinese references that could be interpreted as showing a Chinese claim cease in the second half of the last millennium.

But in the end, so what? If Chinese maritime expeditions, or even maps, from the Song Dynasty of 1000 years ago make the islands part of China today, and if Chinese rule over Tibet for several hundred years over the last millennium mean Tibet must be subjugated forever, does not this also mean that 1000 years of Chinese rule over Vietnam gives China a claim to sovereignty over Vietnam? And that is precisely the problem with “historical” nonsense being dredged up to justify territorial claims, aggression and occupation today: they are irrational and obscurantist, and are generally only used by right-wing nationalist regimes to justify rule in regions where they have no business.

Thus references to the “Song Dynasty” remind one of Mussolini’s references to the Roman Empire to justify fascist aggression around the Mediterranean, of the Zionist movement’s references to the Kingdom of David and Solomon to justify the occupation of Palestine, of the Greek nationalist obsession with the empire of Alexander the Great to deny the rights of Macedonians today, of the Serbian nationalists’ obsession with a battle waged by a brief Serbian empire in the 1300s against the Ottomans to justify the occupation of Kosovo, of the Khmer Rouge’s raising of the ghost of Angkor to justify its claims and aggression against Vietnam’s Mekong region, of Hindu fanatics’ obsession with some temple that was turned into a mosque hundreds of years ago, which they destroyed in the 1990s with catastrophic consequences for all. The list is only short. So much for the “Song Dynasty” argument.

The big picture

There is of course a bigger picture to all this, which includes the fact that there is likely to be oil in the region of these islands; and US-China rivalry in the Asian region, which includes the question of who dominates the seaways of the region, though at this stage it is important to understand that no one is actually blocking anyone else in what are mostly international waters. Even if China’s claim to both island groups as a whole were acted upon, it would not block any ship beyond the 12 miles of territorial waters around them. US imperialism undoubtedly has an interest in trying to contain China’s rise, and as such is maneuvering with the ASEAN states, including Vietnam. Socialists and anti-imperialists oppose any US intervention into this conflict, which can only heighten tensions, and which is only motivated by its own imperialist interests. Indeed, it would tend to heighten tensions precisely by inflaming Chinese nationalism, whose first victim would be Vietnam.

However, there is a big difference between opposing US intervention in the conflict and taking a reflexive “pro-China” position on the issues that divide China from other countries in South-East Asia, especially Vietnam. This is where Manichean “anti-imperialism” has ended up: as China is now seen as a balance to US imperialism, even if its main conflict is not with pro-US regimes in the region but with socialist martyr Vietnam, a tendency emerges to “support China”, whatever that means, in this conflict.

This is a very wrong and anti-internationalist way of viewing the issue. However, beyond this, if there really is such significant rivalry between the US and China, as many now describe – and while real, I tend to find it exaggerated – then that begs the question of the nature of this rivalry: is this just the US trying to contain a large capitalist power, to keep it in its place, as we see elsewhere (e.g., Iran), or is it incipient inter-imperialist rivalry? It is well to remember how rapidly imperialist states rose in the past: it would have been inconceivable in 1870, when Germany and Italy had only just been unified, when Japan had only just emerged from a long sleep with the Meiji restoration, when feudal Russia had only just freed the serfs, that by 1900 these would all be major imperialist powers (and in Russia’s case, with a peasant population bigger than that still existing in China today). I have no firm opinion on this, but I believe signs exist that suggest such a scenario is not out of the question and should not be out of bounds of left discussion.


Here are a few articles worth considering in the context of my final remarks.

“Made in China”,, about what appears to be exploitation in Papua New Guinea of a typically imperialist nature.

“China and Rio Tinto in Guinea: A Wild Courtship”,

“Dam building equates to neo colonialism”,

“Chinas billions reap rewards in Cambodia”,

“Zambia Uneasily Balances Chinese Investment and Workers Resentment”,

“China Squeezes Foreigners for Share of Global Riches”,



Vietnam is not a "socialist" nation. It has embarked on a path of neoliberal capitalist privatisation just as China has, only that China is larger and further along this path.

Of the 5 remaining Leninist states, PRC, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos and Cuba, only Cuba is still socialist to some extent. The other 4 are all severely deformed, mainly in terms of the political superstructure, but in the case of China, Laos and Vietnam, also the economic base.

Therefore there is no "class difference" between China and Vietnam. Vietnam is less deformed than China is, but it's only a matter of quantity, not quality.

The reason why Vietnam seems to be "less nationalist" is because it is far smaller and weaker than China is and simply doesn't have the capital to be so aggressively nationalist.

I used the term "socialist" very loosely in the article, as I don't believe there can be any socialism in one or a few countries, let alone underdeveloped ones. I could have used "post-capitalist." How we assess just where Vietnam, China etc are on the long road between capitalism and socialism and back is a big question that I cannot deal with here, and about which there are naturally a great many views. There can certainly be an argument that Vietnam has restored capitalism in a qualitative sense, as I believe is now correct to say aboyt China. I'm not yet 100% convinced of this, but I currently hold little hope of it holding out much longer.

However, to the extent that, as even you say, China is further along the path to capitalism than Vietnam, I believe there is a class difference being expressed in their differing attitudes to nationalism. Thus I disagree where you write "The reason why Vietnam seems to be "less nationalist" is because it is far smaller and weaker than China is and simply doesn't have the capital to be so aggressively nationalist."

Firstly, if the Vietnamese bourgeoisie were ready to raise a new banner of nationalism, they could raise it against weaker neighboursm such as Laos and Cambodia. In fact they have been busily delineating the border with Cambodia. They could also raise a new 'Viet' nationalsm and further alienate the minorities. Many are already deeply alienated by their social status in Vietnma more generally, but this represents a reality on the ground rather having any ideological expression yet. Ideologically, the CPV's slogan is still "the great solidarity," its equivalent of the Titoist "brotherhood and unity."

Second, there is the small matter that the Vietnamese diisident opposition is precisely raising the banner of nationalism, as I showed. They are not worried about being smaller. That is because nationalism, even radical chauvinism, rarely bothers about being contradictory; thus they believe they can be very nationalist against China by getting closer to US imperialism. The CPV is clearly working VERY differently to that. IF they worked like that, it would be a signal.

Third, being in small countries hasn't stopped certain neighbouring countries, or political forces within them, from raising the banner of reactionary nationalism, eg, 'Yellow Shirts' in Thailand want war with Cambodia over the border, 'Sam Rainsey (megalomaniac) Party' in Cambodia want war with Vietnam over border etc. I believe we should acknowledge the clear difference of approach by the CPV at present.

Finally, China's nationalism has gone beyond actions and taken on an ideological form, as I documented. I believe this represents a genuinely new, in China, ideological deviation, itself representing how entrenched the new reality has become, which in tuern represents how entrenched the Chinese bourgeoisie has become. As in Yugoslavia in the past as I noted. I don't believe Vietnam would be able to escape that logic once things "progress" beyond a certain point.

Your readers might like to know that on the northern Vietnamese border with China, AT NIGHT, the Chinese move some border signs/posts further into Vietnamese territory, which is quite rural and even wild in many places. In the morning the Vietnamese border police, checking all along the frontier, dig them up and move them back again. No one publicises this, certainly not the Vietnamese, who, given the historical record might be forgiven for accusing the Chinese of aggression. The question is then why is this happening?


Last updated: 5/29/2011 23:00 The Chinese surveillance vessel no 84 violates Vietnam's sovereignty.

Vietnam on Saturday demands that China immediately stop and not to repeat actions that violate Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction rights over its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga made the statement at a press conference in Hanoi regarding the May 26 incident in which Chinese marine surveillance vessels cut exploration cables of the Binh Minh 02 ship of the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) when the ship was conducting seismic surveys on the continental shelf of Vietnam.

The incident took place in an area called Block 148 about 120 km (80 miles) off the south-central coast of Vietnam from the beach town of Nha Trang, and some
600 km (370 miles) south of China's Hainan island.

"Vietnam resolutely opposes the Chinese side's action that damaged and hindered Vietnam's normal exploration and survey activities on its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, causing great damages for PetroVietnam," Nga stressed.

This action seriously violated Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction rights over its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, breaking the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and going against the spirit and words in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) signed between ASEAN and China in 2002 as well as the common perception of the high-ranking leaders of Vietnam and China, she added.

"The Vietnamese navy will do everything necessary to firmly protect peace and the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Vietnam," Nga said.

*RELATED NEWS* Chinese ships violate Vietnam's sovereignty, disrupt oil exploration work<> Chinese fishing boats violate Vietnam waters; gov't mulls patrol boats<>

Nga also rejected the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's remarks on May 28 that the Vietnamese oil and gas exploration activities in the "waters managed by China" damaged Beijing's interests and management right in "South China Sea", going against the two countries' common perception on the "South China Sea" issue and that the action taken by the Chinese governing body is merely a marine supervision and law execution in the China-managed waters.

She explained that the area where Vietnam conducted explorations is entirely within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam as stipulated by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is neither a disputed area nor an area "managed by China." China is intentionally misleading the public opinion into thinking it is a disputed area, she said.

Nga at the same time stressed that Vietnam always adheres to the common perception of the countries' high-ranking leaders on addressing all disputes through peaceful measures and avoiding actions that further sophisticate the situation. "There is no common perception that says China has the right to impede Vietnam's activities in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam," she said, adding that it is China's action that goes against the common perception of the two countries' high-ranking leaders."

The spokesperson also pointed out that while China calls for solving relevant disputes through peaceful measures, its own action is making the situation in the East Sea more complicated.

Asked about China's nine-dashed line claim in the East Sea and a series of recent disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines , Deputy Chairman of Vietnam's National Border Committee Nguyen Duy Chien said:

"China's nine-dashed line or "U-shaped line" in the East Sea is completely groundless and runs counter to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of which China is a member. The claim has violated the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of a number of countries in the region, including Vietnam , and prompted protests from these countries. China's attempt to materialize this claim is in fact increasing tension in the region."

In response to journalists' questions about Chinese leaders' repeated proclamations that " China advocates peaceful solutions to disputes" and that "It is powerful but not hegemonic," Nga said "We hope that China will fulfill its role as a power and strictly follow what Chinese leaders have declared."

Do Van Hau, Deputy General Director of PetroVietnam, briefed reporters of the incident when PetroVietnam-owned Binh Minh 02 ship was blocked and threatened as well as had its cables cut by three Chinese marine surveillance vessels while conducting explorations at 12 degrees 48'25" north latitude and 111 degrees

26'48" east longitude, some 116 nautical miles off Dai Lanh cape in the central coastal province of Phu Yen.

Hau emphasized that the sea water where PetroVietnam's ship was operating is deep inside Vietnam's continental shelf.

PetroVietnam has conducted seismic surveys in the area for numerous times and Binh Minh ship 02 operation within the sea waters under Vietnam's sovereignty is quite normal, said the PetroVietnam senior official.

Hau said the Chinese ships' cutting Vietnamese ship's cables is a deliberate and well-prepared action.

"It is impossible to cut cables at a depth of 30m under the water without special equipment," the oil and gas exploration expert explained.

"The incident has caused considerable losses and obstructed operations of PetroVietnam. The Binh Minh 02 ship and logistics ships had to stop working in order to repair the damaged facilities," Hau said, adding that the Binh Minh 02 ship has so far resumed normal operation after the repair. Source: VNA

Updated May, 28 2011 09:42:41

Source: Vietnam News Agency.

VN condemns Chinese intrusion

China Marine Surveillance ship No 84 entered Vietnamese waters on Thursday, cutting the exploration cables of a Vietnamese vessel. — VNA/VNS

HA NOI —The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry has staunchly opposed the recent action of Chinese marine surveillance vessels in cutting the exploration cables of a PetroVietnam ship that was conducting seismic surveys at Lot 148 within Viet Nam's continental shelf.

A ministry official confirmed that, while the PetroVietnam ship, Binh Minh 02, was conducting seismic surveys at the lot which falls within the country's 200 nautical mile continental shelf on Thursday, Chinese vessels cut its exploration cables at a location 120 nautical miles from the Dai Lanh cape in the central province of Phu Yen.

The official added that a representative from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry had handed over a diplomatic note to representatives from the Chinese embassy in Ha Noi in protest against China's action. The note demanded that China immediately cease and prevent the re-occurrence of activities that violate Viet Nam's sovereign right to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. The note also demanded compensation for damage caused.

The diplomatic note stated that, while China's action violated Viet Nam's sovereign right to its continental shelf, it also went against the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The note said that China's action had violated the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea
(DOC), signed between ASEAN and China in 2002, and the common perception of the two countries' high-ranking leaders on preventing further complication of the situation in the East Sea.

Viet Nam National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) Deputy General Director Do Van Hau provided the information on the violation during an interview with the media in Ha Noi yesterday.

According to Hau, in implementing the group's oil and gas exploration and exploitation programme for 2011, the PetroVietnam Technical Service Corporation
(PTSC), an affiliate of PetroVietnam, dispatched the seismic survey ship Binh Minh 02 to conduct seismic surveys at Lots 125, 126, 148 and 149, which lie within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Viet Nam.

The Binh Minh 02 had conducted two previous surveys in those areas, the first in
2010 and the second on March 17, 2011, he said, adding that surveys had been conducted smoothly and that the Binh Minh 02 had performed its tasks competently.

At 5:05am on May 26, the Binh Minh 02 picked up a strange vessel moving towards the survey area on its radar. Five minutes later, it detected the approach of another two ships. The three ships were subsequently identified as Chinese marine surveillance vessels that had moved into the survey area without warning.

At 5:58am, the Chinese ships crossed through the survey area, only 120 nautical miles from the Dai Lanh cape in the central province of Phu Yen, an area well inside Vietnamese territorial waters, cutting the Binh Minh 02's exploration cables.

Hau added that the three Chinese vessels had hindered the operations of the Binh Minh 02 and threatened it by saying that the Binh Minh 02 was violating Chinese sovereignty.

The Binh Minh 02 determinedly rejected the Chinese threats, responding that it was operating inside Vietnamese territorial waters.

The Chinese vessels kept up impeding the Binh Minh 02 until leaving the survey area at 9:00am on May 26.

The Binh Minh 02 had to cease operations on Thursday in order to gather damaged equipment for repair. Under instructions from PetroVietnam and PTSC, the Binh Minh 02 repaired its equipment on the spot and resumed its operations by 6:00am yesterday.

The PetroVietnam leader affirmed that the Chinese vessels had penetrated deep into Viet Nam's territorial waters in order to sabotage and hinder PetroVietnam's exploration activities, calling it an extremely perverse action that violated Viet Nam's sovereign rights.

He said that PetroVietnam had reported the incident and had asked the Vietnamese Government to take the strongest possible measures in demanding that the Chinese immediately cease their invasive actions that have blocked PetroVietnam's operations while assisting the group in carrying out its exploration and exploitation activities.

PetroVietnam affirmed that it would continue to conduct seismic survey activities in the area that they confirm belongs to Viet Nam. The group will work in close co-operation with relevant agencies to ensure the effective and safe operations of the Binh Minh 02 which, in operation since 2008, has carried out a multitude of surveys on Viet Nam's continental shelf.— VNS

Here is a slightly edited version of a letter I sent in mid-March to Michael concerning the above article. Michael suggested that I post it to Links as it might be of interest to others. I am doing so now in light of the continuing interest in the Spratly Islands dispute: see, for e.g., -- Richard

Hi Michael,

Your explanation of the circumstances surrounding Vietnam’s boundary dispute with China over the islands was valuable and compelling. But on reflection we felt there were some problematic aspects to the article. Let me explain my take on this.

The first problem is with your thesis that China’s bellicose conduct toward Vietnam demonstrates that it “may be morphing into an emerging imperial power in its own right,” which you acknowledge is “another more complex issue” than the boundary dispute per se. You cite China’s previous military aggression in 1956, 1974 and 1988. But I am sure you would agree that in the first two instances Maoist China could not be characterized as capitalist, let alone imperialist. “Anti-solidaristic,” as you say. Big-power chauvinist, probably. But imperialist? Surely there was something else involved.

You say that in 1956 China’s seizure of the eastern part of one of the island groups reflected its interest in “preying on a weakened Vietnam.” But China was under constant threat from U.S. and world imperialism at the time; it thought the islands were of strategic importance to its national defense, and Maoism’s international diplomacy was based on its “socialism-in-one-country” approach. Isn’t it likely that its seizure of the island(s) was motivated primarily by its concern to counter imperialist aggression, rather than to prey on Vietnam?

Kissinger’s 1974 green light to China to launch a military attack on the western Hoang Sa you see as “part of a Machiavellian plan to prevent the coming unified socialist Vietnam from controlling the islands, and to kick sand in Hanoi’s face.” Perhaps. But is it not likely that this was one of Washington’s ways to reward Beijing for its valuable help in imposing the new Accords on Vietnam? And that Beijing saw this primarily as a concession by Washington that allowed it to expand its own military defenses against U.S. encirclement? Narrow nationalist considerations, in defiance of Vietnamese sovereignty concerns, to be sure. But imperialist?

It strikes me that in all three instances (including the 1988 events) the common motivating factor in China’s stance is concern over imperialism’s confrontation with China, although in all three Beijing’s action overrides or ignores competing sovereignty concerns on the part of Hanoi. This then begs for an explanation of why China has such apprehension of U.S. aggressive intentions toward it, and how well-founded this apprehension is. You tend to pooh-pooh this: “there is clearly rivalry, but also a great deal of cooperation,” although you do state that you would “still strongly defend China from any direct attack by U.S. imperialism.” I think more needs to be said.

But before I get to that, there is another aspect of this “China as emerging imperial[ist] power” argument that I find not entirely convincing.

An “emerging imperial power”?

You say that Chinese businesses operating abroad are “no different to any other” foreign capitalist investors in their conduct. You cite, in reference to Vietnam, the bauxite-aluminum development, the issue of Chinese workers, and an anecdotal example of less cooperation by Chinese border police with their counterparts in Vietnam. At another point you say that China, “all over the developing world,” is “replicating typically exploitative patterns well-worn by the imperialist powers before it.” There are some significant differences, however, are there not?

It seems to me that if China is to be considered “imperialist,” or on the road to it, there must be an analysis of the peculiarities of this “imperialism.” China invests abroad in collaboration with the respective host governments; it signs detailed contracts, provides generous lines of credit, engages in infrastructure projects that are often of direct benefit to the countries involved (and not just to China’s resource exports from those countries). China does not interfere in the political systems or regimes in those countries. It has a good reputation for respecting their sovereignty (somewhat frayed, it seems, in the case of Vietnam).

The fact that it employs its own workers probably stems from its desire to ensure rapid completion of projects, and control of the work force in circumstances very similar to those used at home. This also helps to minimize the potential for adverse labour relations in the host countries. In fact, when you think about it, China’s foreign operations are very much a faithful replication of the labour relations and investment regimes Beijing has established within China itself, including the use of state-owned enterprises on large infrastructure projects. Of course, such conduct by no means averts a lot of ethnic tension and chauvinist bluster on the part of both host and guest. But “bourgeois nationalism”?

China participates in the world imperialist structures such as the WTO; that’s now the price of admission to international trade and investment for a country on China’s scale of operations. But it operates on terms that differ significantly from those typical of the emergent imperialist nations of the late 19th century. As Lenin and others noted, the world was already divided up between the dominant European powers and the USA 100 years ago. So new entries into world commerce, especially those with a recent history of anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles of their own, face some major strictures on their international operations. They operate within an international legal framework of nominally sovereign states. China does not challenge that framework; on the contrary, it invokes it on its own behalf, and joins with many “third world” dependencies in defending their attempts to shift the world relation of forces in their favour (the G20, etc.).

China proposes a world system based on multipolarity, which it opposes to U.S. hegemonism. But it does not pose a redivision of the world, a reconfiguration of national sovereignties.

China’s investment projects abroad ravage the natural environment, exploit some local labour, and their content is dictated above all by China’s nationalist considerations of defense and development. But to my knowledge China does not attempt to coerce host countries into generalized “free-trade” investment deals that give relatively free rein to capital to dictate the overall trade and investment relations of the host country, as the leading U.S. and European imperialisms do (with Canadian and Australian complicity). China does, of course, have a few aces in its own hand given its huge holdings of U.S. treasuries; it finances some of its major imperialist rivals, in fact. But this also means that there is a network of mutual dependencies (or interdependencies) the weight and direction of which shifts over time -- and increasingly, it would seem, in China’s direction. Hence the U.S. hostility to this emerging “superpower.”

Furthermore, given its economic dependence on so many regions of the world, such as the Mideast, where the U.S. maintains hegemony, there are definite material reasons for China to look sympathetically on the popular upsurges and overthrow of pro-U.S. regimes in those areas, whatever Beijing’s apprehensions over the contagious effect of these revolutionary democratic movements on its own population.

You may have seen the recent interview with Gilbert Achcar, published as “The Chinese equation” (IV433, Gilbert points to a number of features in China’s international relations today that resemble those of the emerging imperialist powers of the late 19th century. But he also points to a significant difference in the military sphere. I am inclined to agree with him on this:

« China is doing today what the capitalist economies at the end of the nineteenth century did, in their “imperialist” mutation. As it has an enormous amount of money to invest, it is no longer satisfied to export goods, but increasingly exports capital, whether towards developing countries or towards Western economies, and even offers to re-inflate countries like Greece and Portugal. It hopes in return for better access to international markets, the development of commercial exchanges, privileged access to raw materials, and the political influence that goes with that. The loans for aid to development lavished by China today exceed those of the World Bank. On the military level however, that has not, or not yet, been expressed in the manner of the imperialism of the end of the nineteenth century, by militarism and gunboat diplomacy aimed at extending politico-military domination. There is not yet anything comparable in the attitude of China. China’s priorities in the military sphere are primarily of a defensive nature: China’s obsession today is encirclement by America. »

Is nationalism “the ideology of the bourgeoisie”?

Also problematic in your article, I think, is the discussion of nationalism, although it is not your main point. You say that nationalism “is the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and is essentially anti-working class and anti-internationalist,” although you add an important qualification: “except when there is a genuine national struggle against oppression....” You point to the way in which the Chinese leadership promotes some forms of nationalist ideology (e.g. anti-Japanese feeling) as a means of conjuring up a unifying ideology when socialist internationalism has become irrelevant to its project.

Again, however, there is the fact that China under Mao was nationalist, and its nationalism had a rational and progressive kernel insofar as it also expressed the national pride of a country that had managed to overthrow colonialist hegemony, achieve national unification, and establish its national sovereignty in opposition to imperialism and its “Nationalist” allies, now taking refuge in Taiwan. Was this nationalism the ideology of the bourgeoisie?

I understand where you are coming from on this. As you explain, you see a parallel between China’s nationalistic bullying of Vietnam and the nationalism of the emerging/rising bourgeoisie in Serbia and Croatia during the breakup of Yugoslavia — a process which you have analyzed expertly elsewhere. You acknowledge that the Vietnamese leadership is nationalist, too, but you still see a class difference between its nationalism and China’s, which in your view (and that of many Marxists) is now definitively capitalist. I’ll leave aside this latter issue; personally, I am still uncertain as to how to classify China, which is clearly going through some fundamental transformations that were unforeseen in previous Marxist theory. But is that the whole story?

Is China’s nationalism only an expression of the ideology of its new bourgeois layers? They seek popular support by playing on the historic anti-imperialism of the Chinese masses, directed in the last century against U.S. and other western imperialism, and earlier against Japan. As a generalization, nationalism can certainly be characterized as reactionary, the ideology of the bourgeoisie, in the imperialist countries. So I suppose that if China is imperialist, then its nationalism can be characterized as reactionary. But what about nationalism in the dependent or semicolonial countries that are subject to imperialist exploitation and oppression? As you acknowledge, insofar as their nationalism is directed against oppression it is progressive. Is it useful then to describe it as bourgeois ideology? And who are these bourgeois who fight oppression?

I would argue that China, a poor country, relatively underdeveloped, is both oppressed and oppressor. The established imperialist powers, led by the USA, bully China and in a multitude of ways attempt to circumscribe, control and curtail its attempts to overcome its backwardness. In this sense, it is oppressed as a national state. But China is itself an oppressor in relation to national minorities within the state (Tibet, etc.) and is guilty of exercising big-power chauvinism against other, smaller states such as Vietnam. That chauvinism (nationalist ideology) is a tool of the ruling clique in Beijing, whether caste or class, and they wield it in many instances.

I say “nationalist ideology.” Historically, of course, Marxists referred to nationalist ideology as bourgeois ideology. When the Comintern, as part of its developing understanding of imperialism and the struggle against it, came to distinguish a progressive component called “revolutionary nationalism” (actually national “movements”) of the oppressed fighting imperialism, it did not clearly reassess the overall earlier designation of nationalism as the ideology of the bourgeoisie in its fight to establish sovereign states in place of particularist social structures such as feudalism. And Stalinism largely foreclosed further elaboration on this distinction.

So it remained customary among many Marxists to refer to nationalism as the ideology of the bourgeoisie — albeit with the distinction, among revolutionary Marxists, of that exception for the nationalism of the oppressed (and usually non-bourgeois) layers of the population. I think you will agree that this formulation, by itself, does not sufficiently encompass the problematic. (I leave aside the question of nationalism as imperialist ideology, although that is really just another way of saying it is bourgeois ideology in the age of imperialism.)

The state conflict with world imperialism may be the “principal contradiction,” because it “over-determines” other contradictions such as the internal national question, but the latter (the “secondary contradictions”?) do not therefore disappear in importance; in fact, they may be highly relevant — for example, does the oppression of Tibet help or hinder China’s attempts to assert and defend its sovereignty internationally? Or does its harassment and bullying of Vietnam negate the progressive nature of its own struggle to defend its sovereignty against foreign imperialism?

Or to put it in another context, the revolutionary leaderships in a number of Latin American countries present their anti-imperialist programs in a nationalist context of refounding the nation, of asserting national sovereignty against imperialism. We need to be wary of blanket condemnations of nationalism as bourgeois ideology that could blind us to the progressive significance of this phenomenon. To be consistent — that is, consistently anti-oppression, emancipatory in content — this nationalism must be internationalist, that is, consistently anti-imperialist, and translate into progressively deeper inroads on capitalist hegemony culminating in its overthrow.

Of course, it is not enough to confine one’s stance to defence of state sovereignty, or (worse) to confuse that defence with political support of the regimes of states targeted by imperialism; we have seen the perils in that approach in the tendency of some otherwise progressive Latin American leaders to give political support to an Ahmadinejab or a Kaddafi.

I am sure you agree on the substance of what I am trying to say here. But your article could be subject to misinterpretation because of some things it fails to say. Your blanket characterization of nationalism as bourgeois ideology might suggest that in China, for example, the struggle for national unity and sovereignty never played a progressive role, or that defence of Chinese sovereignty cannot be progressive in some specific contexts.

Finally, I agree of course with your critique of what you justly call Manichean “anti-imperialism” that simply puts a plus where imperialism puts a minus. We certain have a few bad examples of this on the GLW and Marxmail lists, among others!

Best regards,

I did indeed recommend Richard send his very thoughtful and useful discussion to Links, and I’m glad he finally did. At the time I said I would come up with some response, but, alas, finding the time to write the kind of detailed response that such a thorough piece requires has alluded me. Now Richard’s discussion is up, I work on that, but just for now, a couple of quick points.

First, Richard says my discussion in nationalism is a side-point. It is, but not half as much of a side-point as my alluding to the possibility of China having morphed into a new imperialist power, which is Richard’s main point.

There is a very good reason that I was being vague, referring to a possibility, a question, about whether China was morphing into an “imperial” power etc. The reason for all this evasiveness son my part was precisely because I hold no firm opinion on this. I mainly alluded to it at the end, and left a number of links for further thought.

That is especially why I encouraged Richard to write: I think the discussion is very important to be had, and that things in the real world are changing rapidly while many of us may be stuck in old ways of thinking about this, but I am not sure of the answer. The China discussion probably needs a separate page on Links, rather than as part of this islands dispute page.

One thing I will say quickly, however, is that I disagree very much with Richard’s assertion that China’s actions are – and were – mainly motivated by fear of US encirclement. I see no evidence of such “encirclement” either today or at any time since about 1971 (Richard is certainly right about events in the late 1950s, which I also pointed out in my article). Richard’s assertion that the Kissinger-China dealing over the Paracels in 1974 was motivated, on China’s part, by aiming to further protect itself from US encirclement I find oxymoronic, and way off the mark, in such conditions of solid US-China alliance in encirclement of Vietnam.

The other thing I would quickly say is that, while I still stress I hold no firm opinion, recent events – such as the open aggression last week in Vietnam’s territorial waters *nowhere near the disputed islands, and not even within the territorial waters of those islands if we were to concede the entire South China Sea were Chinese property* - have tended to firm up my suspicions about China’s evolution.

Finally, I just want to thank Richard for the very intelligent, constructive and comradely way he ahs approached this discussion, which is a breath of fresh air compared to what we often get when differences are raised among the left, especially in online discussions.

There is a page on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal where
articles on the nature of China are being collected:

--- "mkaradjis" <mkaradjis@...> wrote:
The China discussion probably needs a separate page on Links, rather than as
part of this islands dispute page.

Billionaire Cisneros to Team With Chinese Banks in Latin America Oil, Gold
By Daniel Cancel - Jun 17, 2011 3:09 PM GMT+1000


Venezuelan billionaire Gustavo Cisneros is setting up joint ventures with Chinese banks to carry out investment in Latin American commodities industries.

The chairman of Cisneros Group of Companies , who is relinquishing operations of the firm to his youngest daughter Adriana, said he aims to push through projects delayed by state inefficiencies through partnerships in energy, agriculture and metals. Deals may take place in countries including Brazil , Colombia , Mexico and Panama, Cisneros said.

“You’ll probably see in the next year or two a lot of Cisneros China or China Cisneros in Latin America and it’s going to be whatever comes, whether it’s oil, gold or big cattle operations,” Cisneros, 66, said yesterday in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York . “They understand they don’t have the knowledge to run these businesses. They need results now and we can provide results.”

Cisneros, who first traveled to China about 30 years ago with billionaire philanthropist David Rockefeller, is expanding into deals with the Chinese after shedding beverage and consumer-goods companies and America Online Latin America since the early 1990s to focus on his Venevision television network. Banks in China, the third-largest source of foreign direct investment in Latin America, lent Brazil’s state-run Petroleo Brasileiro SA (PETR4) $10 billion in 2009 in exchange for oil supplies, among credit provided to secure resources from the region.

China Development Bank

Since 2007, government-owned China Development Bank has lent more than $68 billion to Venezuela , Turkmenistan, Ecuador, Brazil and Russia in exchange for crude and gas shipments. Liu Kegu, a bank adviser, said in a Jan. 15 interview that the lender would extend credit to Chile, Peru and some African nations.

Export-Import Bank of China Ltd. , the nation’s policy lender specializing in cross-border trade and investment, and Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. last year agreed to tie up with Inter-American Development Bank to expand their trade finance activities in Latin America.

Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (1398) Ltd., the nation’s largest commercial lender, said in April it intends to set up a full-service bank in Sao Paulo and become the second Chinese lender after Bank of China Ltd. to have a branch in Brazil.

Beijing-based spokespeople at China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank and Bank of China didn’t answer calls to their offices, while ICBC’s Beijing-based press officer Wang Zhenning declined to comment.

Needs ‘Heavy Investments’

“The fact is, China needs to do heavy investments,” said Cisneros, who has homes in New York, Miami, the Dominican Republic and Spain . “If we put together our talents for new businesses in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico -- something that has an interest for China -- we can match those interests and do very well.”

China accounts for 9 percent of foreign direct investment in Latin America, trailing only the U.S. and Holland, according to the United Nations ’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Cisneros also is operating in the world’s fastest-growing major economy in a partnership with China Central Television to broadcast original television content and to provide expertise in producing local programs.

Hispanic Market

The Cisneros Group, which took in $1.5 billion of revenue in 2010 and has its headquarters in Miami, also is expanding businesses aimed at the U.S. Hispanic market as well as in nations across Africa and the Middle East . Telenovelas, a type of Spanish-language soap opera, produced by Cisneros will begin to air in Iran and Afghanistan this year, said Adriana Cisneros de Griffin, who sat next to her father during the hour-long interview.

Cisneros Group provides Univision, the leading Spanish- language broadcaster in the U.S., with 40 percent of its content, and the airing of the Eva Luna telenovela in 2010 was more successful than the company anticipated, she said.

“There were more people seeing TV in Spanish, our soap operas in the U.S., at moments than seeing NBC, CBS or Fox,” said the 31-year-old vice chairwoman and director of strategy. “With Univision we designed an interactive strategy that resulted in our last show having 9.7 million viewers; we thought our audience was 7 million.”

Brazil Business

Cisneros’ youngest daughter, who spent hours as a child in Venevision television studios and traveled with her father to bring DirecTV (DTV) to Latin America when she was 13, handles the company’s Brazilian business while her father focuses on China and long-term strategy. A graduate of Columbia University and New York University who resides in Manhattan , the younger Cisneros is creating interactive online programs and working with Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) on mobile programming.

“Media has become a really interesting part of the market to be in, everything happening with digital interaction is fascinating, everyone trying to make a business model around all of that,” she said. “But it’s fast-changing and we keep changing our strategy for interactive and digital on a monthly basis and I think we have to because that’s the new nature of the beast. What we’ll be able to do with our content in the coming years is amazing.”

Gustavo Cisneros inherited the company from his father in 1970 and a fortune built from expanding Venevision and representing U.S. brands such as Studebaker, PepsiCo and Burger King in Venezuela. Cisneros and his family are worth $4.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The 58-year-old company employs about 8,000 workers.


The group was one of the largest bottlers of Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo Inc. products outside the U.S. until the 1990s, when Cisneros and his brother Ricardo decided to switch to Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. (KO) They sold the carbonated beverage business a year later.

In Venezuela, Cisneros Group has the largest privately owned television network, a local baseball team and through Cerveceria Regional SA continues to compete with the largest brewer, Caracas-based Empresas Polar SA , for market share. Polar now has a joint venture with PepsiCo.

Cisneros said he chose his youngest daughter to succeed him because she showed an interest in media and a passion for trying to run the business. The elder daughter, Carolina, has dedicated herself to her five children, while his son Guillermo handles family finances, Cisneros said.

Sense of Duty

Adriana said she always knew she wanted to be in media, “but I thought I would come work for my family when I was 40 and not 25. When I saw my brother didn’t want to take the position that he was groomed for, out of sense of duty I said let’s do it sooner than later.”

Both are optimistic about the outlook for their business in Latin America.

“We have the best decade of Latin America ahead of us, of course this or that happening, but the numbers objectively,” Cisneros said before being interrupted by his daughter.

“It’s our decade,” she said.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Cisneros continued. “Any way you look at it, politically, economically, culturally, Latin America has come into its own.”


[Posted on behalf of Michael Karadjis]

If stripped of some of the hyper-Trotskyoid phraseology, and a few of the "inevitables", I believe this statement below by some group called "Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, RCIT) says what needs to be said about the current mutual chauvinist stand-off between China and Japan over some uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. I believe the lead slogans below are correct, as are the main explanations:

No to chauvinist war-mongering by Japanese and Chinese imperialism!

Chinese and Japanese workers: Your main enemy is at home! Stop the
conflict on the Senkaku/Diaoyu-islands in the East China Sea! No to
chauvinist war-mongering by Japanese and Chinese imperialism!

By Michael Pröbsting (Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, RCIT),

War threat is looming in East Asia. A group of five islands in the
East China Sea - which are called Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu
islands in China - are at the centre of the most recent outburst of
Japan's and China's drive for hegemony. Behind the dispute over the
claims on the islands lurks the drive of the imperialist ruling classes
of the second and third biggest world economic powers - China and
Japan - to control the rich resources in the region. The present
chauvinist war-mongering also serves to divert the working class from
the sharpening social problems at home and to rally them behind their

The RCIT calls socialists and class conscious workers to oppose the
chauvinistic warmongering and turn the workers and popular hatred
against their imperialist rulers. There must be neither support for
Japan nor for China in a possible conflict in the East China Sea. Both
are imperialist powers. Both pursue imperialist hegemonic interests in
the region. Both are deadly enemies of the working class. The RCIT says
that in any military conflict between the two powers socialists must
strive to convince soldiers to direct the guns not against their
brothers in uniforms of the enemy country but against their real
enemies - the reactionary governments in their own country. The goal is
to transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war. The
same position applies to US imperialism in case it should intervene in
the conflict.


[Posted on behalf of Michael Karadjis]

Taiwan's entry into the current Sino-Japanese stand-off with a semi-military clash with Japan might come as a surprise to those who really think the confrontation is between a Chinese "workers' state" and US-led imperialism, with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan etc all part of the latter's "class" front against the PRC.

However, once you understand what is taking place in terms of the massive rise of a Chinese mega-capitalist class onto the world stage (whether you choose to call it imperialist or not), and the connections between the various parts of this international Chinese capitalist class  (i.e., from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, parts of the diaspora, perhaps Singapore???), and the importance of the ideology of The Nation to a rising capitalist class, then the fact that the first actual semi-military conflict in this game occurred between (capitalist, pro-US) Taiwan, and (capitalist, pro-US) Japan, is entirely logical, virtually expected. Note the article says "Taipei surely wants to show that Beijing is not the only power prepared to **defend China's honour** on the subject of the islands."

Only by coincidence, I guess, did it occur at the same time as the Taiwanese-invested Foxconn vandal company operating in the PRC announced it was halting production following a riot by 2000 workers ( - as always, the capitalist class, in Japan, in China/Taiwan, finds chauvinistic stunts useful to divert the masses from focusing on the enemy at home:

Taiwanese boats challenge Japan in island dispute

Sixty Taiwanese vessels faced Japanese water cannons as they entered waters near a disputed island chain claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan early Tuesday. Japan purchased the islands from a private owner last week, sparking protests in China. By Winnie Andrews (video)

A week after Japan's purchase of the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu archipelago from a private landowner sparked protests across China, a third regional player has entered the fray.

Sixty Taiwanese coast guard and fishing boats, accompanied by patrol ships Taipei said were carrying fully armed personnel, faced Japanese water cannons early Tuesday as they entered the waters surrounding the islands, which are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan.

This breach of what Japan considers its sovereign territory adds fuel to the debate that has already been raging between Japan and China in recent weeks over ownership of the islands. Several days of sometimes violent protests have erupted in cities across China, with Japanese firms targeted by rioters.

But Taipei also lays claim to the uninhabited islands, and is seemingly willing to back its convictions with action. Situated in the East China Sea, some 200 kilometres northeast of Taiwan and 400 kilometres west of Okinawa, Taiwan claims that it has ancestral fishing rights to the island chain.

"Taipei surely wants to show that Beijing is not the only power prepared to defend China's honour on the subject of the islands," says Valérie Niquet, a researcher at the Asia programme of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank. "Taiwan is taking a turn to mark its territory."