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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Op/Ed: Containing China from Mongolia to Vietnam

August 7, 2010

Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Asia Briefing
July 16, 2010

At first glance, the cities of Ulaanbataar, the
capital of Mongolia, and Hanoi, the capital of
Vietnam, may not seem to have very much in
common. Some 3,000 miles apart at opposite ends
of Asia, the people, culture and history are very
different except for one element, having China as a neighbor.

While Mongolia opted for assimilation into the
Soviet Union as a communist nation in 1924,
gaining independence again in 1992, Communism
came to Vietnam in 1946 following the formation
of the Vietnamese Communist Party led by Ho Chi
Minh in Hong Kong in 1930. The First Indochina
War pitted the communist Viet Minh against the
French. The French were defeated in 1954 and the
country was partitioned at the 17th parallel with
the communists taking the North. This was
followed by the American involvement to prevent
the spread of Communism to the Republic of
Vietnam in the South and throughout Asia until
1975 when the country was reunited with the
communists, backed by China and the Soviet Union,
gaining control of Saigon and forcing an American withdrawal.

That friendship with China turned sour when
Vietnam invaded the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge
government of Cambodia, which had been
terrorizing Vietnamese citizens along the border.
In 1979, China invaded Vietnam, sending 200,000
troops to “teach Vietnam a lesson” over
interfering with China’s policy in Southeast
Asia. A short, but bloody war followed, leaving
thousands dead before China eventually withdrew
after a month. From having been allies in forming
a communist alliance against the excesses of
capitalism, Vietnam and China found themselves
estranged, a situation that did not immediately
sit well with the third and fourth generation
Vietnamese-Chinese who had lived in the country for generations.

Mongolia, sandwiched between the two superpowers
of the Soviet Russia and China, opted to side
with the Russians after it became apparent in the
early 1920s that maintaining independence from
either was not going to be a sustainable option.
On the basis of the Russian culture and looks
being far less related with Mongolia’s, the
decision to join the Soviet empire was made in
light of the viewpoint that had Mongolia sided
with China, they would never have got their
country back. Assimilation with China was a
greater threat than assimilation by the Soviet
Union. This proved correct. When the Russian
troops upped and left in 1992, the Mongolians
immediately began claiming back their country and
reasserting their independence.

These border disputes and historical alliances
however have left an indelible mark on both
Mongolia and Vietnam. Buddhist monks still wander
the streets of Hanoi, and the Dalai Lama is a
revered figure in Mongolia. In fact a previous
Dalai Lama was born in the country, a situation
likely to be repeated in the near future. Both
Vietnam and Mongolia then are acutely aware of
the Tibet issue, the assimilation of Tibet into
China and the fate of any moves for Tibetan
independence. China’s superiority in the region
has been duly noted in both Hanoi and
Ulaanbaatar. In dealing with the repercussions
however, both Vietnam and Mongolia have opted for
a pragmatic solution – there are very little
Chinese characters on display throughout both
countries. Ulaanbaatar is almost exclusively
devoid of Chinese, while in Vietnam it is
restricted to trading houses near the main ports
and the occasional restaurant. Even then the
characters tend to be the complex traditional
ones, rather than Mainland China’s simplified
version, a reflection of the fact that in
Vietnam, it remains the southern Chinese
Cantonese culture that historically has traded
with the Vietnamese and not the Communist led era of 1950 onwards.

Characters are to be found, but its the signs of
businesses from Japan and South Korea that
dominate other Asian regional cultures in both
Vietnam and Mongolia, not Chinese. This holding
back on advertising a geographically close
presence to China is a sign that neither the
Mongolians nor the Vietnamese are particularly
keen to allow a strong Chinese culture develop in
their respective nations. Curiously, as the West,
and especially the United States, has gone hell
for leather for Chinese trade, and attracting
Mainland China tourism is strongly on the agenda
in many countries, for Vietnam and Mongolia, it
is a culture that represents perhaps too strong
an irrepressible urge. Holding China back by
denying use of Chinese characters throughout your
nation may seem odd when China is such mainstream
international news and its currency reserves are
feted over by many a government globally, but for
these two nations, at opposite ends of the China,
containment, and a more subtle arms length
approach to doing business with the Chinese is
emerging after decades of experience. China has a
recent history of assimilating nations, and
nowhere is this more apparent than along its
remaining independent border neighbors. The
lessons for the West to learn here may still yet
be played out for decades to come.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal and
founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, who
maintain 17 regional offices throughout China,
Vietnam and India. He also has invested in
property in Mongolia, and sits on the regional
UNDP Business Advisory Council for Northeast
Asia. Dezan Shira & Associates provide foreign
direct investment legal, tax, business advisory
and due diligence services throughout the region.
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