While almost everyone in the world has been holding their breaths and shaking their heads as every step unfolded in Russia’s plot to invade Ukraine, for most Vietnamese it has been an eerie sense of déjà vu.
Last week, Vietnam commemorated the date of February 17, marking 43 years since the bloody war with China broke out in 1979. Though that war was brief, lasting just about 30 days, and was mostly fought among the border provinces of Vietnam, it cost around 30 thousand lives on both sides; with some estimates indicating much higher casualties.
After months of amassing troops at the border, China launched what it called a “self-defensive counter-attack” against Vietnam on February 17, 1979. Among the reasons given for the “self-defense offense” was the alleged persecution of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam.
However, many believe it was the Vietnamese government’s policy of leaning toward the Soviet Union - then China’s nemesis - that triggered the war, hence the infamous quote by the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who warned that Beijing would “teach Vietnam a lesson.”
For many Vietnamese, Vladimir Putin’s attack against Ukraine makes people feel like they’re being thrown into a time vortex as they watch Russian troops amass at the border, accusing the Ukraine government of committing “genocide” against ethnic Russians, and finally “justifying” the invasion as “an act of self-defense.”
Philosophers like to tell us that no man ever steps in the same river twice. Yet dictators never fail to remind us of their ability to swim in the same river, again and again.
Adolf Hitler justified the attack against Czechoslovakia in 1938, first taking Sudetenland and then invading the whole country a few months later, by claiming that ethnic Germans in the Sudeten regions bordering eastern Germany were being mistreated.
Just a couple of months later, Joseph Stalin invaded Finland - a neighboring country just 1.5 percent the size of the Soviet Union, and with a population just a little more than 2 percent of that country.
Stalin manufactured the reason to attack Finland by killing his own troops and then blaming it on the Finns. Was the real reason for the invasion self-defense? Or was it as Stalin put it: “Since Leningrad cannot be moved, the frontier must be moved farther away.”
For hundreds and thousands of years, those bullies have always used the same playbook: cover their own inner fears by making others cower to them.
And cower many did, mostly in the name of peace.
The big Western countries turned a blind eye in 1938 and let Hitler get his toy in Czechoslovakia in the hope that the bully would stop there.
The Western world showed little desire to push back Putin when he annexed Crimea in 2014.
While millions have listened to the defiant Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, in what would be their last words, telling the invaders to “go fuck yourself,” many Vietnamese can not help but bring back the memories of the 1988 bloody clash with China over the Spratly Island Reefs.
On March 14, 1988, Chinese warships fired on and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers on Johnson South Reef, after the Vietnamese refused to let their country’s flag go which they first planted on the island. The incident, along with other conflicts with China over the years, has largely been buried by the Vietnamese Communist Party in its bid to appease its powerful neighbor. Thus the incident remains almost unknown, not only to the outside world but also to a large part of the Vietnamese population.
Such appeasement has never satisfied the bullies and nor has it ever made them go away.
While there is no certainty about whether Putin will stop at Ukraine or keep spreading fear across Europe, there is little doubt that Xi Jinping is stretching his hungry arms closer to Taiwan.
Whenever dictators and bullies get to swim again in the same river, it’s always the river of blood - and always others’ blood that is shed, and never their own.
Should we choose jamais vu again, pretending it is the first time this happens and it will not happen again, the bullies will get to do it again, again, and again.