Chris Devonshire-Ellis: Containing China from Mongolia to Vietnam

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Op/Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Jul. 16 – 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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