Category Archives: Vietnam

Bottlenecks to Development: Challenges in the Mekong Delta

Last week, ExSE took a hard look at the environmental challenges facing the Mekong Delta region and found that the prospects are not good. Due to unenviable geography and global warming, rising sea levels, higher average temperatures and irregular precipitation patterns will all converge in the next 50 years to change the face of the Mekong Delta (MKD). That’s to say nothing of salinity intrusion, flooding and tropical storms. However, the MKD’s problems are not only environmental in nature; the region’s economy also faces a host of challenges, many of them tied to the Delta’s environmental changes.

Issues in the Mekong Delta are of course significant for its residents, but they also carry great importance for those outside the region because of the MKD’s role in national and regional food security. The statistics on the Delta are incredible. In an area taking up just 36,000 square kilometers (12 % of Vietnam’s total area), the Delta’s 22 million inhabitants plant 2.6 rice crops per year totaling 25 million tons of rice. The MKD’s rice production accounts for over half of Vietnam’s total and the seven million tons rice that the Delta exports has helped Vietnam become the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand. In addition, the Delta accounts for 70% of Vietnam’s fruit production and three-quarters of its fish catch.

The Delta’s massive agricultural output is no accident. The region is perfectly situated to receive large amounts of water and sediment from the three main stems of the Mekong Delta and the many thousands of canals that intersect them and a tropical temperature allows for farming year-round. What’s more, concerted efforts in the past 30 years to improve the region’s water infrastructure have doubled arable land in the MKD. Combined with advances in genetically modified rice strains, yields in the Delta have increased by 30% and total production has doubled, all within the past 20 years.

Incomes have also increased. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), the average income of Delta residents has gone from 50 cents USD/day in 1999 to $2/day in 2010 and the region reached it Millennium Development Goals in 2006. However, despite impressive improvements in agricultural output and per capita income, the Delta has lost ground to other regions of Vietnam and now lags behind in important measurements of human and economic development.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

In the late 1990’s, the Delta was actually 20% above the national average in per capita income. However more than 10 years later, the number stands at a little more than 80%. In the first decade of the new millennium, Vietnam underwent a period of intense economic growth through industrialization and people all over the country got richer as a result. The benefits of economic growth were not felt equally by everyone, however. Due to development bottlenecks, some regions, including the Mekong Delta, did not industrialize like others

One of these bottlenecks is a lack of infrastructure. The proportion of waterways, intra-provincial roads and inter-provincial roads per thousand people are all behind the national average. Of these three measures, the proportion of inter-provincial roads stands out. For one, there are only 0.34km of them per 1000 people in the Delta, standing at only half of the national average. This is especially important because of the nature of the Delta’s economy. The MKD, because its economy is so heavily concentrated in agriculture, lacks many necessary products and thus has a long history of importing and exporting nearly everything. While this may be good for enterprising middlemen, it is not good for the region’s economic development. With so few avenues for importing and exporting goods, the logisitical cost rises and because the MKD lacks so many raw materials, industrial development becomes disadvantageous. In fact, unless an investor is interested in agricultural processing, building a factory closer to Ho Chi Minh City is probably a better business plan in many cases.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Measure of waterway, inter-provincial roads and intra-provincial roads in the Delta. Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

A second bottleneck, and another reason a potential investor might not consider the Delta, is a lack of skilled labor. Like the region’s road density, the MKD’s percentage of trained labor lags behind the national average; according to data collected by GSO (General Statistics Office of Vietnam) the Delta’s percentage of trained labor stood at just over half of the national average. In addition, the proportion of Delta residents with some sort of higher education stood at less than 1%, or in other words, just a fifth of the national average. With a workforce that is so poorly trained and educated, the Delta becomes an even less attractive region for investment, especially when compared to the populations near the Red River Delta (Hanoi and its environs) or Ho Chi Minh City.

What’s more, those Delta residents that have some technical training and/or higher education do not stay in the Delta for long. As the region’s economy falls farther behind the rest of Vietnam, more and more Delta residents are moving to urban centers to look for work. One of the main destinations for these people is Ho Chi Minh City, where over half of the city’s migrant workers come from the Mekong Delta. What trained labor the MKD might have ends up leaving the region for greener pastures, thus widening the gap between the Delta and places like Ho Chi Minh City.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

One reason that the MKD has such a low percentages of trained labor and educated inhabitants is that in the past there was no need for supplementary education of any form. In an environment where the annual rice yields are stable and prices are good enough, investing time and money for a new career is an unnecessary risk and one that Delta residents have not taken. Paddy rice cultivation requires little technical skill yet provides a modest, usually stable income. However, the income provided from rice is rarely enough to invest in the expansion of other industries and in the Delta’s case, the lack of infrastructure makes such an investment an even more expensive proposition.Unfortunately for the farmers of the Mekong Delta, rice cultivation is becoming a less and less stable enterprise. For one, the price of rice has dropped in the past decade. As more and more rice is produced worldwide, the seven tons of rice the Delta exports annually decreases in value and farmers lose out.

However, shifts in the world rice market are nothing compared to problems farmers face due to global warming. As detailed here, rising temperatures, sea level rise, an erratic precipitation and flood schedule and more frequent tropical storms all threaten to radically alter the Mekong Delta in the next century. The region already has enough impediments to development with its lack of infrastructure and trained labor; its environmental issues only add to the severity of the situation. The Delta, now more than ever, is in acute need of solutions. However, who’s coming up with these solutions, if there are any to begin with, is another question unto itself and one that needs to be answered before any future for the Mekong Delta can be imagined.

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Filed under Agriculture, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Vietnam

The Coming Downturn of China-Vietnam Trade Relations


I recently had a conversation with a high ranking officer in Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade whose work responsibilities include promoting and facilitating border trade and investment between Vietnam and China.  We have been meeting for years and despite past flareups in the South China Seas and the occasional anti-China rally in Hanoi, he has always expressed optimism toward the future of the China-Vietnam relationship. He has believed that cooler heads will always prevail at the upper levels of government and that the increasing flows in border trade and investment overland between China and Vietnam do much to alleviate the tensions brewing on the seas.  But in my recent meeting, the officer expressed a 180 degree interpretation of the future of trade relations between China and Vietnam.  He fears that as a result of China’s aggressive movements in the South China Sea, the two countries will soon adopt isolationist and protective trade policies toward each other, and the goodwill provided by decades of border trade and shared investment projects will soon become undone. Continue reading


Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, USA, Vietnam

A Flood of Challenges: Climate Change and the Mekong Delta

As loyal readers of ExSE have probably noticed by now, this site, at its core, is dedicated to Mekong River and the people who are connected to it. Thus it seems odd that so little attention has been given to the Mekong Delta on ExSE. As is the case with most international coverage of the Mekong, the upper and lower reaches of the river are largely ignored in favor of stories about hydropower projects and the livelihoods they will affect. However, the challenges that the Mekong Delta (MKD) is currently facing and will face in the future are also serious. These challenges are directly related to global warming and are shared with other deltas, though the unique geography and ecology of the Mekong makes the consequences of climate change here even graver. Continue reading


Filed under Agriculture, Environment and sustainability, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Vietnam, water

Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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Filed under Cambodia, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Laos, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Vietnam, water

Hekou’s 600 million yuan “boondoggle”

Editor’s noteThe following article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on the website Go Kunming. It is reprinted here in its entirety.

The media in Yunnan, and around the country, is often overly fond of splashy headlines containing enormous investment figures. The articles that follow are generally paeans to a modernizing society and the wonders of Chinese-style capitalism. Failure is rarely chronicled. That is far from the case in Hekou (河口), which is currently receiving plenty of negative journalistic buzz due to a development project provincial officials have deemed an embarrassing and costly “boondoggle”.

At issue is a 270 million yuan (US$43 million) construction project on the banks of the Honghe River (红河). The China-Asean International Tourist Cultural Scenic Corridor had been under construction since 2011, when the government approved development on the site, a kilometer-long stretch of uninhabited land.

Designed to be a showpiece of the city’s economic growth, the enterprise has become an object of public scorn and a symbol of miserable urban planning. The entire riverside development is now slated to be torn down at a cost surpassing that of its construction. Conservatively estimated at 300 million yuan (US$48 million), demolition costs include the projected expenses of paying back investors and cleaning up the site.

Although the corridor was nearly finished, its 150 mixed-use shopping and business venues are currently being razed and will eventually be converted into public green space. The decision to halt and ultimately destroy the venture is a “policy adjustment” by the local government, according to a South China Morning Post (SCMP) report.

Concerns over poor planning and improper waste disposal were raised by local residents as the project neared completion. Complaints increased and the endeavor, which was hoped to complement and augment natural scenery, became a blight that authorities describe as a “negative influence” on the riverside.

Investors, shop owners and even low-level government planners were apparently surprised when the announcement came to dismantle the corridor. “It never occurred to us that a new order [for demolition] would come so soon,” an unnamed city planner told the SCMP. Locals have taken things more in stride, using a still-standing plaza for ballroom dancing in the evenings.

Hekou sits on the shore of the Honghe River and is joined with the Vietnamese city of Lào Cai by bridge. For most of the past decade, provincial developers have been throwing money at the area in hopes of turning the city into a major trade depot connecting China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.

In 2008, a highway connecting Hekou County to major cities in neighboring countries was completed and work is well underway on a railway project linking Kunming to Hekou and, eventually, Hanoi. For now, however, it appears the 80,000 residents of Hekou will have to wait to see a venue that properly expresses their town’s importance as a regional trade hub.


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Filed under China, Economic development, SLIDER, Vietnam, Yunnan Province

The anti-Vietnam protest that didn’t happen

Kunming’s Nanping Jie Square, the site of Sunday’s non-protest.

The ringtone on my wife’s cell phone abruptly called us awake at 8:30am on Saturday. The caller ID displayed the name of one of my closest friends and colleagues in Kunming, yet I wondered why he was calling my wife. “Comrade, good morning,” rang out his thick Sichuanese accent.  This was a standard greeting among my circle of friends, but calling someone comrade in China has long gone out of fashion.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

So it turns out he spent the previous day at his workplace, a local university, holding meetings with top administration and security brass discussing how to prevent the university’s students from attending a protest scheduled for Sunday, the next day. He told me that a group of Vietnam war veterans from China’s 1979 punitive invasion of Vietnam received approval from the local civil affairs bureau and the local public security bureau to march on the Vietnamese consulate in downtown Kunming.  The scheduled march was in reaction to the growing movement of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam that left more than 20 Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese dead in the previous week.

The starting point was the city’s main pedestrian square at Nanping Street; the march would commence at 9am and finish at 2pm at the consulate.  His call was a warning for me to lay low – for all foreigners to lay low – because foreigners, especially Caucasian foreigners could serve as a potential target for angry, nationalistic protesters.  He was also calling to warn me to stay far away from the protest.  He knew I had a penchant for observing and writing about protests in Kunming, and my actions in the past had landed me and subsequently him only by guilt of association in a little trouble with local security officials.

To help place the gravity of the situation squarely on my shoulders, he told me of how he spent the previous evening having meetings with the students under his supervision, pleading them not to attend the protest – even though it was a legal protest – for fear that it may turn violent or take a turn toward other issues that were suppressed and mulling around in the hearts and on the minds of disgruntled people in Kunming.  In fact, his work group in cooperation with a successful commercial real estate form had arranged a 5 kilometer eco-walk scheduled for Sunday morning, but due to the protest he decided to cancel the event.  His university and the firm apparently poured a good deal of money into the event so he was quite put out by the cancellation.  “Right now, we will do what it takes to ensure stability at any cost.” I had heard those words too many times in the last 18 months living in Kunming.

His parting words before hanging up were also ones familiar to me: “Stay at home and have a good time with your wife.”

This season of South China Sea’s flare-ups and shenanigans is heating up once again.  To provide a quick rundown of the last 10 days: China parks it’s billion dollar oil rig 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam near Da Nang; rams a few curious Vietnamese ships, super soaks other onlookers with high pressure water hoses; foreign ministries respond with sabers rattling; protests broil in Vietnam; Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese factories burn; people die unnecessarily due to this tricky, inane, orderless, yet extremely critical game of cartography, resource grabbing, and interpretation of the current world order.  And to round out the week, the first organized civil response in China comes from….Kunming?

In some ways Kunming makes sense.  The pathway of China’s 1979 spring invasion of Vietnam cut through southeastern Yunnan province into Vietnam’s Lao Cai province.  The three month war was a tough decision for the newly installed Deng Xiaoping.  He sought to punish Vietnam for its humanitarian invasion of Cambodia to take out the Khmer Rouge and install a new caretaker government, in some ways Deng thought this would help make good on his warming commitment to US-China relations.  Many of the troops sent to Vietnam were stationed in Yunnan, Kunming specifically.  Many did not return.  In total approximately 70,000 soldiers and civilians died in the three month conflict.

Both sides claimed pieces of victory.  In the end, China chalked up fewer casualties and proclaimed the incursion’s main purpose was to scare the Vietnamese before retreating.  The Vietnamese army valiantly as always pushed back most of the encroaching forces as the PLA entered the provinces to the north of Hanoi.  The caretaker government in Cambodia was not handed over to the Khmer people 1979.  Officially the caretaker government left in the early 1990s, and some argue that the pro-Vietnamese caretaker government is still in power.  To me a China’s claim to victory holds little water – just like its 9 dash line that lays claim to the near entirety of the South China Sea (which by the way holds a ton of water, fish, and most importantly energy resources.)

But then again there is little about Vietnam’s South China Seas claims that make much sense either.

From my experience interacting with locals, very few Kunmingers, and Chinese people in general, under the age of 50 know the story and context of the 1979 war.   I was not surprised to learn that a group of organized veterans still operated in Kunming given that veteran groups from WWII were still active in Yunnan and much is done in this city to preserve WWII related heritage. But how many were there and how many would show up for the march on Sunday? An organized effort that received government approval and raised the alarms of state related institutions like my friend’s university would likely bring out at least one hundred people. Would they be able to rally more than 1000 Kunmingers under the intense midday sun similar to the anti-PX protests (not government sanctioned) of nearly exactly one year ago?

Would the protesters flip and set cars alight?  Wait, Vietnam doesn’t produce cars.  Would they target people who appeared to be Vietnamese? Wait, I won’t finish that sentence.

On Saturday evening, a crowd of Kunming’s expats gathered for the soft opening of a New York style pizzeria.  The chatter was (sort of) abuzz with talk of the next day’s scheduled march and protest.  Over the previous two days word of the march had spread, for better or worse, among the community via the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, and now the gathering enabled the conversation to go from digital form to the soon-to-be-obsolete vocal communication style characterized by eye contact and hand gestures.

“Did you see how close China’s oil rig is to Vietnam’s shoreline?  It’s totally in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.”

“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone?”

“Yo, this South China Sea shit’s been going on for years.  All these countries play around with each other like they’re still in middle school.”

“That 9 dashed line just showed up in on China’s official maps in 1954.”

“Why Kunming?”

“Maybe the anti-PXers will show up to the protest again and then it could get really ugly.  Wait…maybe the Uighers will plan another attack?  And do you think things will be different now that Kunming’s police forces can carry armed weapons?  What’s happening to our city?  This used to be a really cool place to live!”

“Those Vietnamese love to play games, they learned how from the Soviets.”

“I’m totally going to wear my bright red “Made in Vietnam” shirt with the big yellow star tomorrow.”

“Maybe that’s not the best idea.”

“What’s an Exclusive Economic Zone? And dude, where’s my beer?”


Those who watch the Sino-Vietnamese relationship closely know that the situation is not getting any better despite the rosy accolades of year-on-year bilateral trade increases, strengthened cooperation on the (lately not-so-successful) repatriation of illegal Uighur immigrants from Vietnam back to China, and a new high-speed rail and road network connecting Vietnam to China.  Watching the relationship from Yunnan province only amplifies the growing crevasses.

Looking locally and outside of the South China Sea conflict, foreign direct investment between Yunnan and Vietnam is on the decline and according to the Vietnam Ministry of Industry and Trade office in Kunming, several key Yunnanese invested projects in Vietnam have been put on hold.  Last year Vietnam Airlines suddenly cancelled its daily flight from Kunming to Hanoi.  Two years ago you could readily buy Vietnamese Banh My sandwiches from food carts in downtown Kunming, and now none are to be found.  Enrollments of Vietnamese nationals into Kunming’s university level Chinese language programs are on the decline and are eclipsed by students from Thailand and Laos.  This spring, neighboring Guangxi province closed the border to watermelon imports from Vietnam which gouged prices at home in Vietnam and angered many farmers.

The list goes on, but I must mention that the yearly China-Vietnam Friendship Tennis Tournament which traditionally ushers in Kunming’s Southeast Asia Expo has been suspended for the last two years.  Both sides suspect each other of stacking the line-up with semi-pro players and accuse each other of foul play.

Waking on Sunday morning, the day of the march, I pondered the deterioration of this relationship. It was clear that more were losing than winning, but how many of Kunming’s everyday citizens are directly affected by the recent cooling and would the protesting veterans be able to gather enough onlookers into their fold in order to make an impactful statement?

I also pondered my friend’s advice on whether or not to go observe the march – but only for a few seconds.  With my smart phone charged to the max and ready to live-tweet the march as I had done for the past anti-PX protests in Kunming, I mounted my electric motorbike and made way to the protest zone, picking up a concerned friend along the way.  He promised to help navigate the security arrangements citing experience recently gained on a week-long trip to Pakistan.

I’ve learned in the past 18 months that the signals of a protest in China begin to appear well before arriving on site, and given this sanctioned protest site was staged for the same site as last year’s initial anti-PX protest, I had a well developed strategy to lay low and observe from afar lest I be spotted and photographed by the local security apparatus.  As we approached the downtown pedestrian square at 9:15 just after the march was scheduled to begin, we saw very little increased security presence.  From 100 meters away it was easy to see the center of the pedestrian square was cordoned off by local police forces to create a space the size of two football pitches.  Local police mingled in and out of the zone, and some middle-aged men sat in the shade of some trees on the periphery of the zone.

So far no sign of a protest presented itself.  No banners, no t-shirts, no slogans, no face masks, just a nearly empty square.  In fact, the most conspicuous aspect was the plain clothes policemen scattered around the square.  Always slightly overweight, deep tan, same crew-cut, off-color collared polo, and the signature man bag containing who knows what – the uniform of the Chinese plain clothes policeman is always easy to spot.  I also spotted a fellow blogger sitting in the shade inside the protest zone – his blond locks and European pedigree always stand above the crowd at Kunming’s protests in which he often finds himself smack in the middle of.

There still wasn’t any action, so my friend and I ducked into an adjacent shopping mall and rushed up to the a 2nd floor Starbucks to find a seat on a sofa beside a window overlooking the square.  Needless to say the position of our perch made us feel more like spectators at a sporting event than at China’s first anti-Vietnam protest of the 2014 season.  We were free to comment and tweet at will.  No security forces were going to bother us there.  My VPN was on line and the connection was kicking.

From our bird’s eye viewpoint, we observed a line of ten paddy wagons parked on the southern edge of the square. A small platoon of SWAT police in riot gear made rounds of the square.  Still no protesters.  A WeChat message popped up on my cell phone from the blond blogger sitting inside the zone.  “Situation normal, just loads of police presence, no sign of protesters….Another Kunming couldn’t care less story.”

And that was just it.  Kunming really couldn’t care less.  We estimate that fewer than ten veterans showed up.  Their t-shirts with Chinese flags gave them away.  At about 10:30am, the veterans formed a half-circle in the middle of the square and were escorted around half of the square by uniformed police. Their march lasted less than a minute.  A cameraman from the local television station sitting on a shaded bench missed the procession because his boredom turned to a brief chance to catch a nap.

At 10:45am, the cameraman picked up his bags and went home. Nothing to see here folks.  By 11am the temporary fences were removed, and the pedestrian square exposed to the intensity of the midday sun once again filled with local shoppers making their way through Kunming’s commercial downtown.

I was relieved that nothing happened.  Perhaps word came down from high for the veterans to cool their guns since the Vietnamese government was making good on its commitment to control the anti-Chinese movements and violence within its own borders.  The last thing our little city needs is to have its blue sky reputation tarnished by another incident making the international news and filling the Sinosphere and the South China Seas with flotsam and jetsam.


Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Uncategorized, Vietnam, water

Anti-Chinese Protests Shake China-Vietnam Relations

China's oil rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, sits 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline.  Photo: Xinhua.

China’s oil rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, sits 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline. Photo: Xinhua.

Following the deployment by China of an oil rig in disputed waters between China and Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots have swept Vietnam, bringing Chinese-Vietnamese relations to their lowest level in recent years.

The demonstrations started shortly after China moved an oil rig, referred to as Haiyang Shiyou 981, within 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam. This position is also 17 nautical miles off of the disputed Paracel Islands.

The Paracel Islands lie at the heart of the controversy over the oil rig. The Paracel Islands are a group of small islands in the middle of the South China Sea with no native population. Both Vietnam and China place historical territorial claims to the islands. Prior to 1974, the islands were controlled by the navies of China and South Vietnam. Following a naval battle in 1974, China took the whole group of islands from South Vietnam.  Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam renewed its claim to the Parcels, and the dispute has continued ever since.

The dispute over the oil rig and the Paracels also ties into different interpretations by Vietnam and China over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which both Vietnam and China are signatories. Vietnam claims that the oil rig falls within the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) granted to it by UNCLOS, and thus violates Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty along with UNCLOS. China claims that it falls within its territorial waters that are adjacent to the Paracel Islands it controls.


Regardless of the validity of each of the two country’s legal claims, one thing clear through all of these murky interpretations of international law is that the placement of the oil rig has raised significant anger on the Vietnamese side. Vietnam has declared that it will “apply all necessary and suitable measures to defend its rights and legitimate interests.” At the 24th ASEAN Summit in Burma, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared that China’s placement of the rig was “brazen”, “ gravely violates the international law”, and that China’s action was “dangerous”.

In response, the Chinese side has been equally provocative. The state-run newspaper Global Times backed “non-peaceful” measures against Vietnam and the Phillipines, said that Vietnam should get a “lesson it deserves to get”, and declared that “many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China’s sincerely peaceful intentions”. Meanwhile, the chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Fang Fenghui, declared at a press conference that it was actually the Vietnamese who were being provocative, that the Paracels were “”border territory which has passed down from our ancestors into the hands of our generation – we cannot afford to lose an inch”, ending with “We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble.”

The situation around the rig has only gotten worse since it has been deployed, with both sides claiming the other side has rammed its ships and used water cannons, while the Chinese have deployed ships to protect the rig, and have accused the Vietnamese of erecting barricades and fishing nets around the rig in order to impede the rig.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground on Vietnam has become violent. Anti-Chinese protests have erupted all across Vietnam in response to China’s actions, and the protestors have targeted foreign factories believed to be Chinese, but have also turned out to be Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian or South Korean. More than 400 factories were damaged by the mobs. The casualties resulting from the protests are still unclear with the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirming that two Chinese nationals had been killed, while other sources said that 21 people had been killed. Over 100 are believed injured. China has charted planes and ships in order to evacuate 3000 Chinese nationals in Vietnam.

Photo: Kham/Reuters

Photo: Kham/Reuters

At the time of this writing, it seems that the protests have mostly calmed with over 1400 protestors having been arrested, and Vietnam having deployed massive numbers of security forces throughout the country. However, what’s clear is that the formerly cordial relations between the two states have been seriously damaged, with China’s Foreign Ministry declaring that the violent protests had “undermined the atmosphere and conditions for exchanges and cooperation between China and Vietnam” and that the Chinese side was suspending diplomatic contacts, along with issuing a warning against travel to Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Prime Minister sent out a mass text message warning people not to participate in the protests, but at the same time calling for Vietnamese to “to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law”. As Vietnam continues to deal with China, the Vietnamese government will likely remember the consequences if it is seen as being soft on China by the Vietnamese populace. And unless China moves the rig, China has likely just given the US further reason to justify its pivot to Asia.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Vietnam

New Addition: Country Profiles on East by Southeast

ExSE is excited to announce the addition of a new section to our website!  Country profiles are now available for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam.  These profiles introduce the historical, political, and economic milieu of countries in Southeast Asia and provide you with up to date analysis of current events and developing trends in the region.  You will find links to economic and environmental data as well as a discussion of each country’s regional connections (including the China connection!) in a greater context.

These country profiles are authored by undergraduate students enrolled in the Regional Development in China and Southeast Asia program at the IES Kunming center.  Each semester new students will have the opportunity to update, edit, or add to the existing reports so be sure to check for updates frequently.

Country reports can also be accessed via the site’s top menu bar under Profiles.

If you have suggestions, contributions, or photos to provide for the country reports, please feel free to contact us at

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Thailand, Uncategorized, Vietnam

In Cambodia Racist Rhetoric Brings Death Threats to Human Rights Activist

Opposition protesters from Cambodia's National Rescue Party gather in downtown Phnom Penh, December 2013.  Image: Vicky Han

Opposition protesters from Cambodia’s National Rescue Party gather in downtown Phnom Penh, December 2013. Image: Vicky Han

PHNOM PENH – Cambodia, a nation once traumatised by the ‘Killing Fields’ of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, has come a long way since then in rebuilding  the nation from year zero including the holding of elections, and the  creation of a multi-party system.

But the recent flood of hate-mail and death-threats sent to Mr Ou Virak, the president of CCHR (The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights) in the capital Phnom Penh, points to a society still dangerously divided over ethnic and racial issues.

 Attacks on human rights activists in Cambodia and around the world mostly come from the agents and the guardians of the status quo – the police, army, militias, and from private security companies deployed by major corporations seeking to block workers rights. Continue reading

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Filed under Cambodia, Current Events, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, SLIDER, Vietnam

China’s Bridgehead Strategy and Yunnan Province

Editor’s note: Liu Jinxin wrote this essay to debunk the myth that China’s bridgehead strategy is militaristic or expansionary in nature.  As a chief architect of this strategy, he seeks to demonstrate that developing Yunnan province into a bridgehead will increase international trade flows and deliver long-term regional security.  This translated essay currently guides top-level foreign policy makers in China in implementing economic strategies along its borders with Southeast Asia.  


Yunnan province's border crossing with Vietnam at Hekou/Lao Cai

Yunnan province’s border crossing with Vietnam at Hekou/Lao Cai

The definition of a bridgehead?

According to the Modern Chinese Dictionary, a bridgehead (桥头堡) is a military term that refers to a strategic chokepoint on the field of battle and particularly refers to a fortified structure that defends and controls a bridge or ferry crossing. In economic terms, bridgehead refers to a strategic forward position on a political or economic front line. The term bridgehead appeared for the first time in an official national level Chinese policy document called “Eastern Bridgeheads” in July 1994 which confirmed the Shandong cities of Rizhao and Lianyugang as the bridgehead terminus of the Eurasian landbridge.

In the economic research of landbridges, a bridgehead is a key concept that acts as a port and facilitates the ease of transportation. Bridgeheads are also international centers of shipping, finance, and information which together form an integrated international center of trade. From a logistical and supply chain system perspective, a bridgehead serves basic support to the Eurasian landmass. It is a city or a region that sits on a strategic position on the logistical and supply chain and serves the specific purpose of controlling the flow of resources along international trade routes. The basic characteristics of a bridgehead are its powers to control, develop, and influence.

The power to control

The power to control suggests capabilities levels of secure logistical flows. This can be understood in narrow and broad senses. From a narrow sense, secure logistical flows are conditional to the degree of market openness.  The survival and development of logistical flows must not be threatened by the power of a government to regulate or control it. From a broad sense, a state’s security and international security are guaranteed by engaging in logistical activities. The capability of a state’s secure logistic flows is determined by its capacity to control strategic resources, logistics routes, linkages, and its industrial supply chain.

Linking with the similar strategic logistic routes, resources, and supply chain structures of neighboring states, a concerted logistics system can deliver harmony and mutual trust as well as a collective security that realizes long term stability. Fostering mutual trust, mutual benefit, and equality work together to form a new worldview for security and protects the security of individual states as well as respects the security concerns of other states.  Mutual trust also promotes collective security.


The power to develop 

Developmental power is preconditioned by the construction of logistic routes, linkages and supply chain structures, the developmental needs of economic corridors, and mutual benefit and cooperation. This power can help states share development trajectories, share prosperity and harmonious development, and eliminate security threats at their root. States should place the promotion of shared development as the method for solving global development imbalances and fostering sustainable development. To revolutionize international financial systems, oppose trade protectionism, and promote regional economic cooperation, developing countries should establish development modes that foster interdependence, deliver effective beneficial outcomes, and seek to erase poverty. Developing countries should expand trade with each other, open markets to each other, and increase the level of south-south cooperation.


The power to influence

Influential capabilities rely on a state’s degree of openness and tolerance, strengthening of the construction of a national culture, making positive contributions in international cooperation, solidification of geo-cultural space, promotion of geo-cultural integration, ability to cooperate harmoniously, and mutual progress with its neighbors. States should respect the rights of other states to determining their own development paths by admitting differences in cultural traditions, social systems, and value systems. States should actively promote and provide guarantees to human rights, and increase dialogue to eliminate misunderstandings. States should initiate a spirit of openness and tolerance, make use of the development modes of other states in a comparative and competitive fashion, and seek collective development despite differences.


The functionality of China’s bridgeheads

The central government has required Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Zone, Yunnan province, and other frontier provinces and zones to open the construction bridgeheads along national borders to implement a stable and prosperous frontier region. To deliver prosperity, the bridgeheads should:

1) Be a foundation of protecting border security and stability

2) Take measures under the conditions of high technology to serve as a front line in partial wars and non-traditional security issues

3) Support efforts to rapidly develop ethnic and national zones through new economic modeling

4) Expand the promotion of international/regional cooperation with neighboring states and extend degrees of openness by forging ahead as zones of experimentation.

5) Serve as a transit and storage point for national energy resources.

From a spatial perspective, Xinjiang acts as a bridge between the East and the West; it is the new Eurasian landbridge’s thoroughfare, and as a “west gate,” it serves the opening of China’s northwest region to Central Asia and Europe.

Yunnan opens China to the Southwest connecting two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian as well as East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. It is the linkage point between China’s southwest, the Southeast Asian peninsula, and the South Asian Subcontinent, and is the starting point of the Yangtze River Delta economic zone as well as the Pearl River Delta economic zone. Yunnan acts as the core belt of the China-South Asia Economic Circle and the China-Southeast Asia economic circle. It is the main connective channel between China and the Indian Ocean and is China’s core zone in the Greater Mekong Subregion. More importantly the province serves as a key trade passageway for goods and services passing from China to South Asia and the Southeast Asian peninsula.


Core Values

China’s bridgeheads are a result of major changes in geo-strategic international structure. The concept is part of China’s key diplomatic principles which pledge to be a good neighbor, a prosperous neighbor, and a secure neighbor. It is also reflective of China’s active pursuit of being a responsible world power. The core values of the bridgehead strategy are:

1) To foster an infrastructure development strategy that expands participation in the world market and establishes interdependence, while constructing mutually beneficial win-win relations with its neighbors

2) To highly prioritize unity among ethnic peoples and social stability by promoting cultural diversity and shared developmental progress

3) To respect  public opinion and the will of peoples in neighboring countries, and respect their value systems by promoting cooperation and exchange between peoples and democratic equality

4) To acknowledge the guidance of international voices and place equal importance on China’s international image and economic benefit

5) To safeguard the benefit of overseas Chinese and Chinese businessmen abroad

6) To value strategic resources, strategic routes, the shared security of strategic industrial supply line

7) To promote the construction of low carbon footprint urban areas and the use of clean energy by promoting an economic society that delivers harmonious, stable, and secure sustainable development

8) To promote the construction of a harmonious new world order and the active promotion of new kinds of partnerships with neighboring countries

9) To resolutely protect free and fair global trade and investment climates, and maintain the free flow of products, investment and services

10) In the long term, to promote sustainable growth, coordinated concerns, advocate tolerance to total adjustment, and promote balanced growth

Global economic balances can only be reached through sharing benefits and needs between developing and developed states.


Yunnan province as China’s southwest bridgehead

The southwest bridgehead is the front line of China’s interaction with the Indian Ocean, and its purpose is to construct a series of overland pathways given China’s southwest connects to South Asia and Southeast Asia trade routes. The bridgehead’s purpose is also to construct a base facing South Asia and Southeast Asia that supports export processing and the facilitation of international and domestic production, and the Kunming international land port economic zone.

Establishing Kunming as an inland economic zone will strengthen logistical flows coming from South Asia and Southeast Asia, create a tourism base for national culture, a commerce base, export processing base, and modern agriculture base as well as an information platform. This platform will come together through the increased progress of the yearly Kunming trade fair, China-South Asia fair, and the creation of different cooperation forums. The central objective is to turn Yunnan province into China’s platform for communicating with Southeast Asia and South Asia. Through creating this window, Yunnan can facilitate the building of trust between China and South Asia and Southeast Asia, and demonstrate the fruits of reform as well as Chinese culture by promoting mutual understanding and friendship. Yunnan can become a demonstration zone for how China can open to its neighbors.

The influence of a bridgehead extends outwards and is continuously stretching its limits. In China this includes two major regions.


A bridgehead to Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia includes the 10 ASEAN states of Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Myanmar and the non-ASEAN state of East Timor. In total this region covers 4.5 million square kilometers, supports a population of 580 million, has a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion USD and a total trade of approximately 2 trillion USD. The creation of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Zone in 2010 created a free trade area of 13 million square kilometers and a combined population of 1.9 billion. It is the largest populated free trade zone in the world and the largest free trade zone among developing countries.

China and ASEAN states are linked by mountains and rivers and share advantages by having varied distribution of resources, differences in specialization of industrial processes, complementary strengths, and an enormous potential for cooperation. As trade between China and ASEAN states increases at a rapid rate so are rates of investment. China is ASEAN’s 4th largest trading partner and ASEAN is China’s 5th largest trading partner. ASEAN has been established as a priority zone for attracting Chinese FDI and is one of the outward investment zones for Chinese industries. ASEAN is also a major market for Chinese labor, and China is winning an increasing amount of engineering contracts in ASEAN.

To date China and ASEAN trade relations have already entered a “Golden Era” and as China and ASEAN open their markets to each other, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Zone will enter a substantive phase. These contributions will bring robust commercial opportunities as the Southeast Asian peninsula is a major global agricultural production area and a critical zone of emerging industries.


A bridgehead to South Asia

The South Asian subcontinent (by way of the BCIM economic zone which includes Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) is the geo-strategic fulcrum between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. At the same time, it is zone of choice for the secure channeling of China’s energy resources. The South Asian Subcontinent is also known as the Indian Subcontinent and is comprised of the Indian peninsula, the Indus river plateau, and the downstream plains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers covering an area of 4.3 million square kilometers. It supports a population of 1.2 billion on 10% of the Asian continent. Its northern reaches are formed by the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and its southern limits are the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Its western borders are limited by the Iranian plateau, and its eastern frontiers are the mountainous eastern regions of India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

The severity of South Asia’s natural landscape has prevented integration and the historically its cultures have been relatively closed-off to each other. This has produced divergent sentiments of independence in the region. The South Asian subcontinent includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and does not include Sri Lanka or the Maldives. Its major rivers are the Indus, Ganges, and the Brahmaputra. Major agricultural products are wheat, rice, cotton, hemp, cane sugar and tea. Resource endowments include coal, mica, zinc, and gold.

An international pathway can be built from Yunnan through Myanmar to give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and its benefits will promote good neighborliness and the strengthening of border areas. Frontiers serve the specific functions of national defense and economic and cultural exchange. Sharing borders with Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Vietnam, Yunnan province serves as the connective link between China, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. It offers an alternate route to the passage of goods through the Straits of Malacca and is the fastest land route for goods to travel from China to South Asia, the Indian Ocean, Europe, and Africa.

Due to its advantageous geographical position, the province can facilitate huge market potential with partners in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Lastly, because of its history of friendly exchange with its neighbors, Yunnan province serves as the ideal representative for diplomatic connections.

The construction of international pathways will do much to improve the state of transportation and shipping and can only expand and deepen the political, economic, and cultural cooperation between China and Southeast Asian states. Building these pathways and supporting the bridgehead strategy will develop regional economic cooperation between China, Southeast Asian, and South Asian states, strengthen the relationship of good neighborliness, and bring stability and peace to China’s border areas.


Filed under ASEAN, China, DOCUMENTS, Economic development, GMS, Laos, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand, Vietnam