“We don’t have friends or enemies in foreign politics, only interests.” This is the mantra repeated by post-ideological governments. Membership identity has disappeared, and common ideals are impossible to find. The Cold War belongs to history books. The market economy has triumphed in global fora, while the Socialist International belongs to academics’ memories and militants’ regrets. This setting applies, in large part, to two formally communist countries, China and Vietnam. In fact, pragmatism is the guiding star of their foreign policy, an instrument they use to continue governing in stability. In any case, their trajectories are often headed on collision courses, and the memory of historical events justified the conflict that ravaged Vietnam until 1975. At the time, during the tragic conflict, Hanoi and Beijing’s positions were relatively simple and homogenous: unity against Washington’s imperialistic attacks. In reality, after Vietnam’s victory, the relationship was bitter. The two Asian countries, quickly divided by Soviet’ encumbrance, actually fought a brief border war in 1979, where the Chinese forces could not get the better of the expert Vietnamese resistance. Since then, peace has allowed slow but punctual progress; today goods and labor crosses the border rather than arms and saboteurs.
However, tensions have not vanished; they sank into history and reappeared when friendship was no longer necessary. The dispute over the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries and now controlled by China, has reached a very worrisome level. The deployment of military fleets and rhetoric used as a mobilization instrument indicate heightening tensions that had been kept artificially low during the years of economic growth. Now, escape from underdevelopment is almost completed, opening up space for unhealed wounds. An archipelago of uninhabited islands is at the center of a power move affecting the entire eastern Pacific. Only a few days ago, Chinese state television aired an unprecedented documentary on the military tensions in 2007, when there was a dangerous escalation over the islands, concluding only after several ship collisions. The location of the Paracel Islands—capable of dominating energy supplies from the Straight of Malacca—isn’t the key factor determining the conflict, nor the quantity of fish found it their waters. China’s expansion toward warm southern oceans is really in play, an ancestral ambition that reemerges every time Beijing finds itself sufficiently powerful. Vietnam is afraid of returning under China’s heel or its sphere of influence, as is frequently the case for tributary nations. National independence is not at risk, as much as submission in the name of interests that Hanoi can’t control because they’re decided elsewhere. China is too powerful to do without it for the country’s development, but it is also so big as to instill fear instead of hope. For this reason, pursuing interests rather than skirmishes is necessary. In Vietnam, images of the Trung sisters circulate, who immolated themselves in protest to the Chinese invasion. They have been part of legends for almost 2000 years, a source of national pride in the yearning for freedom. The two fighters leading a patriotic army appear in manifests, schoolbooks, and oral traditions. They are truly heroines, martyrs for their country; temples are dedicated in their names. In the end, their sacrifice was in vain because after their deaths in 43 AD, Vietnam fell back under China’s yoke. Hanoi’s leadership knows the story well, and that memories are not sufficient. If they are to keep the flame alive, they will be called to negotiate a solution, the most advantageous for reaffirming their own independence and the necessity of freedom of action.