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Rift Between Communist 'Brothers'

13/08/2014 09:24 BST | Updated 12/10/2014 10:59 BST

Nguyen Ngoc, a strong looking 82-year-old man, is famous in Vietnam for his novels depicting the country's brave people in the wars against the French and the American in Central Highlands.

He is now leading the fight in a new front, a tireless campaign to stop a project in which Chinese companies are heavily involved in Central Highland, known as Tay Nguyen in Vietnam.

He thought the reason China was so keen about the bauxite projects was their strategic location in Tay Nguyen.

"It is said that whoever controls Tay Nguyen controls the south of Indochina...," he told the BBC during a recent trip to Toulouse in southern France.

"Why did they insist on participating in bauxite mining? In reality it's because bauxite locates in Tay Nguyen.

"Had it been elsewhere, it was unlikely that they would have participated."

The writer said the two plants, one is already in operation while the other will soon follow, are not profitable and they pose considerable risks to people and the environment.

Red mud already lead to people being killed while huge transporting trucks traveling on roads built for civilian use bring dangers of fatal collision.

"A strange thing is [bauxite mining] plants in Tay Nguyen were all mentioned in documents signed between [Vietnam's Party Secretary General] Nong Duc Manh and China's [leaders]... it shows that China was so determined to involve in bauxite plants in Tay Nguyen," Ngoc said.

"All the while, their demand for bauxite in Tay Nguyen is not big and it shows they have other purposes."

The famous writer said China's placing of the oil rig in the South China Sea in what Vietnam said was its exclusive economic zone in May showed China's real 'ill intention'.

China, on the other hand, argued that the oil rig, which it withdrew in mid-July, was in its territorial water.

'Unhealthy' ties

The moving oil rig created a huge rift between Vietnam and China, among Hanoi's top leaders and between Vietnam's politicians and many vocal anti-China activists and ordinary citizens.

Protests and riots that followed the placing of the rig three months ago lead to several deaths and destruction of plants own by Chinese, Taiwanese and many other investors.

Vietnam has since stopped further demonstrations but discussion about the need to pivot away from China has intensified at least in the virtual sphere.

Many Vietnamese, journalists included, did not hide their dislike of China.

In fact, a recent survey showed that Vietnam ranks second, only after Japan, in the list of countries whose population does not have favourable attitude towards China.

A Vietnamese watcher also said Chinese companies won a lot of projects in Vietnam because they were 'masters of giving bribes while the Vietnamese officials were masters of receiving them."

Many are calling on Vietnamese leaders to stop being kowtowed to China in economy, politics and other areas.

Dr Nguyen Quang A, a respected analyst with a dissident view in Hanoi, told the BBC:

"I think the gist of the discussion about pivoting away from China is we should strive to stop being subservient, subservient not dependent, to China in every aspect including ideology, economy and most importantly political, diplomatic and national defence ralated activities."

Meanwhile Dang Xuong Hung, a former senior diplomat who recently applied for political asylum in Switzerland said:

"In order to pivot away from China, we have to clearly see China's ill intentions and understand ourselves.

"Are we serving the country's interests or the interests of the Communist Party or the interests of different factions of the leadership?

"The French [when they colonised Vietnam] had dragged Vietnam away from China's influence and separated Vietnam from China.

"It was also the French who secured the [border] agreement with the Qing dynasty."

But Mr Hung said the normalisation agreement signed between Chinese and Vietnamese communist leaders in Chengdu in 1990 had ushered in, in the words of the former anti-China Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, "new colonial period by China in Vietnam."

The former diplomat also said it was important to publicise what was agreed in Chengdu, something that leaders from both countries have been tigh-lipped about.

Another Vietnam watcher, professor Jonathan London from City University of Hong Kong said the current relationship between Vietnam and China was "unhealthy" and that Vietnam has to change the nature of the relationship.

"It's useful to compare the relationship between South Korea and China and the one between Vietnam and China.

"South Korea would never consider itself a younger brother to China."

Professor London also argued that Vietnam had to change itself if it wants to change the nature of its ties with China.

"In order to resist China's aggressive and absurd actions, Vietnam will surely need the international community's support and the only way to have the support is to carry out reforms so that the world sees that Vietnam is a country worthy of its support."

'Chance to change'

Economist Le Dang Doanh, however, is worried about what he sees as a pervasive network of informants that China has built in Vietnam and that it may hinder the way Vietnamese leaders make decision.

To writer Nguyen Ngoc, China's recent action in the South China Sea actually serves as a "chance for Vietnam to change".

"The challenge [by China] has exposed the messiness and failures of the system and social problems and this prompts changes."

Vietnamese leaders, meanwhile, could now put the China issue in the back burner as the oil rig was no longer there and also because they are busy manoeuvering to be in the best position for the next Party Congress in early 2016 where top positions in the party will be decided.

Leaders from both countries have appealed to nationalism in managing their relationship and if deaths and injuries from recent demonstrations in Vietnam are any guide, they seem to have played with fire.

But there's no signs that this is to change nor there are signs that people like writer Nguyen Ngoc will stop worrying about what he and others see as China's ill intentions towards Vietnam.

You can also read this blog in Chinese or Vietnamese.