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Vietnamese Nationalism Surges Over South China Sea Ruling

A policeman, right, reacts as demonstrating activists hold anti-China banners in Hanoi, July 17, 2016.
A policeman, right, reacts as demonstrating activists hold anti-China banners in Hanoi, July 17, 2016.

Vietnam's top celebrities are showing millions of their fans where they stand on last week's landmark court ruling that favors the Philippines over Beijing's massive South China Sea claims.

Last week's verdict by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration said China has no legal basis to claim "historic rights" to islands in the resource-rich, territorially disputed waters. It has drawn harsh reaction from Chinese officials, but also from artists who have large fan bases in Vietnam, which is also a South China Sea claimant.

In a seemingly orchestrated response, some of Vietnam's top singers adorned their Facebook pages with the word "no" superimposed on maps depicting the so-called "nine-dash line" that demarcates China's extensive maritime claims.

In another bold move apparently greenlighted by Hanoi's media watchdog, a local channel in southern Vietnam suspended broadcasts of a Chinese drama series after one of the lead actors voiced support for Beijing's controversial claims.

Passport stamps

Meanwhile, Vietnamese immigration officers in Chinese border areas reportedly refused to stamp passports of Chinese tourists that bear renderings of the demarcated maritime area, issuing required visas on a separate document.

While some observers say the refusal to stamp passports may deter travelers from visiting Vietnam, Tran Cong Truc, a former official who has dealt with China over border issues, called it the right move.

"Stamping their passports would effectively recognize China's claims in the South China Sea," Truc said. "We could not accept the unreasonable claims that have been denied by the arbitration court."

On the Facebook page of VOA's Vietnamese service, one reader named Van Giang concurred, while another, Hong An Nguyen, said the Vietnamese regime is stoking nationalist sentiments in order to deflect public attention from other critical issues inside the country, such as corruption, pollution or national debt.

While supporting measures to protect what he called Vietnam's sovereignty, Truc cautioned against extreme nationalism that might fuel social turmoil. For many Vietnamese, rising nationalism sparked memories of the events in 2014, when thousands of rioters targeted companies seen as under Chinese control, after Beijing sent a giant oil rig into waters that Hanoi claimed as its own.

In a rare criticism that appeared to show discord between Beijing and Hanoi, Vietnamese media on Monday rebuked China's state-run press for "untruthful reports" that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang in Mongolia last week that Vietnam respected Beijing's position on the ruling and was interested in advancing two-way talks on the disputed waterway.

Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh had initially welcomed the verdict, reiterating Hanoi's support for resolution of South China Sea disputes via peaceful means. Binh stopped short of saying whether the Southeast Asian country would file any court case against China's claims.

U.S. response

In a joint statement last week, two Republican U.S. senators — John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska — "encourage[d] other South China Sea claimants, including Vietnam, to seek similar resolution of maritime disputes through arbitration as well as by negotiation among the parties."

Asked why Hanoi should seek the legal path to resolution, Sullivan called it "the way to peacefully resolve the challenge of the region."

"The U.S. is very focused on the peaceful resolution of the issue," the senator said while responding to questions at a South China Sea conference hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If there is a dismissive attitude [from China] that the nine-dash-line claim still exists, then I think other countries are going to challenge it."

On social media, Vietnamese netizens expressed excitement over what they see as Manila's victory over China, and many questioned whether Vietnam should follow suit to deal a further blow to Beijing's claims.

In a show of solidarity with Filipinos, a group of Vietnamese activists early this week rallied outside the Philippine Embassy in Hanoi. Before the small rally was dispersed, they held signs that read: "Thank you, Philippines. You have a brave government."

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese service.