Hai Phong (AsiaNews) - Young Vietnamese patriots staged a series of events to commemorate the death of 64 Vietnamese soldiers who died to defend the Spratly Islands. Located in the South China Sea, the Spratlys, together with the Paracel Islands, are the centre of a territorial dispute opposing mainland China to Vietnam and other nations in the region.
According to Vietnamese historians, both island groups have been Vietnamese since the 17th century. On 17-19 January 1974, the Chinese Navy attacked and occupied the Paracels by, followed in 1988 by the conquest of the Spratly during which Chinese troops shot and killed Vietnamese border guards, then landed troops on some of the reefs.
In the last few months, Vietnamese nationalist demonstrated more or less openly against what they call "Chinese imperialism." In recent days, protests took place in the city of Ha Long, in the northern province of Quảng Ninh; demonstrators threw petals and lighted candles to remember the 64 "heroes".
A small delegation of Buddhist monks also said they were willing to move to the islands to pray for the souls "of the dead Vietnamese soldiers, killed by the Chinese Navy."
Meanwhile, discussions over who owns the islands continue. For the president of the Institute of Legislative Studies of the National Assembly of Vietnam, "The issue of Vietnam's sovereignty over the islands is the immediate problem;" however, "a long-term strategy remains" is also important.
The governments of Vietnam and mainland China are already engaged in border talks over. However, according to a Hanoi-based expert in international relations, "frank talks" are needed with Beijing, which continues to claim the Paracels. "Every nation must respect international maritime law," he said, adding however that the Paracels "belong to Vietnam," which China "must return sooner or later".
In Vietnam, the party must manage power differently, a scholar in the Vietnamese capital told AsiaNews. It must reform "the school system and social policies" as well as "offer real religious freedom" if it wants to gain the trust of the people. In particular, "respect for human beings" and protection of their rights, including personal property, are very important.
If governments are only interested in trade and business, especially superpowers like China, they will feel entitled to invade neighbouring countries, and people will suffer.
In the past, demonstrations by Vietnamese nationalists against what for them was Vietnam's subordination to China were viewed by the government in Hanoi as open challenges. In 2011, when intellectuals and ordinary citizens took to the streets, shouting slogans and carrying placards and banners (pictured), Vietnam's Communist rulers cracked down hard, with many people arrested and homes searched.
Among all the nations in the Asia-Pacific region involved in the dispute, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea.
The Spratly and Paracel Islands are uninhabited but rich in energy and raw materials. Controlling them would provide a major strategic advantage in terms of trade and access to oil and natural gas.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are opposed to China's expansionism, and can rely on the support of the United States, which has major strategic interests in the area.
In fact, the Asia-Pacific region has already seen various incidents involving Navy ships and fishing boats from different countries. Under the circumstances, countries like the Philippines and Japan, but also Vietnam, could become allies in case of open conflict.