Police officers march during a ceremony 07 May 1994 in Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the battle where Vietminh troops defeated the French after 55 days of bloody fighting. (Photo by HOANG DINH NAM / AFP)

In December 1955, the newly elected president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, adopted a nationality law that stipulated that all Chinese born in Vietnam were entitled to Vietnamese nationality. There were at the time some 650,000 Chinese in South Vietnam, practically all of whom held Taiwan passports.

As a group, they played a dominant role in the country’s economy. By and large, they had been in Vietnam for generations and some had even arrived when southern Vietnam was still part of Cambodia. With practically no Chinese availing themselves of the opportunity to acquire Vietnamese nationality, Diem raised the ante. In August 1956, he issued Decree 52, which provided that all Chinese residents in South Vietnam would automatically be considered citizens. To emphasize the point, Decree 52, adopted two weeks later, listed 11 professions that foreigners would be banned from practicing in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, these included rice trading, banking and the like in which the Chinese played a dominant role.

In reaction to Diem’s decision, Taiwan issued a violent note of protest. Likewise, the communist regime in Hanoi qualified Diem’s decision as a “fascist act” and the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan commented that no one should be forced to adopt a nationality he did not wish to have. But it was all to no avail, and left with no other choice, the Chinese in South Vietnam put aside their Taiwan passports and took Vietnamese identity cards.

Some 20 years later, after the fall of South Vietnam, the issue of the national status of the Chinese in Vietnam became a major bone of contention between Beijing and Hanoi. Beijing claimed that the Chinese in southern Vietnam were Chinese citizens and that their forced naturalization was illegal. Conversely, Hanoi claimed they were now Vietnamese citizens and that what had been once qualified by Vietnam’s socialist leaders as a “fascist act” was now, in the words of these same leaders, “a solution inherited from history.”

That Diem, the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic president of South Vietnam, would have the same position as his Marxist counterpart in Hanoi regarding their country’s Chinese minority was no accident. Both were committed nationalists. One came from a Mandarin background and the other was a dedicated revolutionary, but both perceived China as their country’s historical enemy. Thus, ultimately, history and geography got the better of ideology, and it was not the first time in Indochina.

On May 8, 1954, a seven-nation conference that included France, the US, the UK, China, the Soviet Union and a Viet Minh delegation, which had convened in Geneva to address the crisis in the Far East, opened its first session on Indochina. Dien Bien Phu, the French military base located in northern Vietnam, had fallen the day before to the Communist-led Viet Minh and it was a given that the French colonial presence in Indochina was over. Thus the purpose of the conference was basically to agree on a formula that would endorse the military victory of the Viet Minh while providing breathing space for those Vietnamese who did not wish to live under a communist regime.

It was not what the Vietnamese communists had in mind. They were on a roll and they felt that their best option was to continue the war and ultimately force the French to give up the fight altogether. But to do so they needed military aid from China and the Soviet Union to continue. The Soviets, however, had their eyes on Europe and did not wish to fuel an escalation of the war in Indochina. Likewise, the Chinese did not wish to provoke an open American intervention in Vietnam. The end result was that both Moscow and Beijing forced the Vietnamese communists into a negotiation process that was not of their liking.

The solution that was generally agreed upon was to divide Vietnam temporarily into two, with a communist north and a non-communist south, pending a political solution. The Viet Minh, which had for all practical purposes won the war, wanted the demarcation line between north and south to run at the 13th Parallel, which would have given it control of Hue and Danang. This met with strong reservations from the Western participants, namely the US, France and the UK, as it would have given the communist Viet Minh a very strong geographical power base. So as an alternative they proposed the 17th Parallel, which would have denied the Viet Minh both Danang and Hue.

There was no reason the communists would have accepted the 17th Parallel, and the conference appeared deadlocked when China and the Soviet Union stepped in.

The Viet Minh would certainly not have won its war against the French, or might have won it less decisively, without the help of China and the Soviet Union. China provided all the artillery the communists used at Dien Bien Phu in addition to training and logistical support. Moscow provided considerable equipment channeled through China. However, while providing military support was one thing, providing diplomatic support during the negotiating process proved quite a different proposition.

The Viet Minh would certainly not have won its war against the French, or might have won it less decisively, without the help of China and the Soviet Union

The day Dien Bien Phu fell, the French government resigned and a new prime minister, Pierre Mendès France, was elected on June 18, 1954. Upon assuming office, Mendès France set July 20 as a deadline for reaching a peace agreement in Vietnam. If no agreement had been reached by that date, France would withdraw from the conference and send its regular army – rather than the current expeditionary corps – to Vietnam. It was a gamble, and had the conference only been dealing with Vietnam, it would certainly have failed. But suddenly global politics kicked in.

In the 1950s, Europe was the main concern of Soviet diplomacy, and within Europe the priority was the thwarting of German rearmament. In May 1952, six Western European countries had adopted the European Defense Community (EDC) treaty, which provided for the creation of an integrated European army with a major German contingent. While the treaty had indeed been signed, it could not come into force without being ratified by national parliaments. Among these, the French parliament was known for its opposition to the EDC. This induced the French government, which did not wish to face a negative vote, to delay submitting the treaty to its parliament.

However, this was not the position taken by Mendès France. The new French prime minister was known for his opposition to the EDC and it was a given that he would submit the treaty to his parliament, where it would be defeated. However, his problem was that he had a weak power base. Conversely, if he could return from the Geneva conference with a decent agreement, he would have enough political authority to submit the EDC treaty to his parliament for a vote. Thus overnight it became the Soviets’ priority to strengthen Mendès France’s hand and provide him with a victory of some sorts even at the cost of displeasing the Viet Minh.

As for the Chinese, their priority was to keep the Americans at a distance from their borders, and the creation of a Vietnamese communist buffer state between themselves and a US-supported South Vietnam would fulfill that purpose. Whether the demarcation line between the two Vietnams ran at the 17th Parallel or the 13th was for them of little concern. All they wanted was at the earliest an agreement that would keep the Americans away from their southern border.

Confronted by the joint pressure of both their Chinese and Russian allies, Vietnam’s communists had to give in and, with considerable dismay, accept the 17th Parallel as the dividing line between the two Vietnams. On July 20 a peace agreement was signed in Geneva and Mendès France could truthfully claim that, given the circumstances, he had negotiated the best possible deal. Six weeks later, on August 30, the French National Assembly refused to ratify the EDC treaty, thus bringing to a close the first attempt since the end of World War II to ensure German rearmament as part of an anti-Soviet European coalition.

Ultimately, China and the Soviet Union got what they wanted and Mendès France got an “honorable” agreement that permitted him to torpedo the EDC. The losers, if any, were the Vietnamese communists, who got half of Vietnam while the situation on the ground would have entitled them to two-thirds. Granted, they were promised that elections would be held in 1956, elections that they would surely have won but which South Vietnam refused to hold.

By then, helping the regime in Hanoi to reach its ultimate goal of a unified communist Vietnam was not on either the Soviet or the Chinese agenda. For Beijing, preserving North Vietnam as a buffer state proved more important than helping its communist allies to conquer the South. As for the Soviets, they went so far as discreetly sounding off some UN member states in New York in 1956 with the proposal that both North and South Vietnam join the United Nations as separate member states. The proposal, which would have turned the coming Vietnam War into an international conflict, was squelched by Washington in what was probably one of its most misguided, and non-reported, policy decisions regarding Vietnam.

The sellout of Vietnam’s communists by both Moscow and Beijing at the Geneva conference has been studiously ignored by Hanoi’s communist leaders. At the time, they were first-generation revolutionaries, many Moscow-trained, who still believed in a “world revolution” of which they were the vanguard in Asia. It was a belief that they still held in 1975 after they had conquered the South. In their view, the reconstruction of Vietnam would take 10 years. The country would then embark on an accelerated rate of development. By the end of the century, Vietnam would be the most developed country in Southeast Asia and the rest of the region would rally to its “socialist development” model and join an ever-expanding “world revolution.”

It took the collapse of the Soviet Union to impress on Vietnam’s aging communist leadership that the “world revolution” was a myth, the “socialist model” a disaster and that their destiny was to be a small country bordering China. This did not make Vietnam a vassal state of China but it did require them to manage with caution and savvy a relationship forever anchored by geography.

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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