HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam is marking for the first time the anniversary of a 1974 naval battle with China in which 74 soldiers from U.S.-backed South Vietnam were killed, apparently seeking to boost its legitimacy at home over its dealings with Beijing as tensions over disputed waters flare anew.
The fight following China's occupation of the Paracel islands is especially sensitive because the government of North Vietnam didn't counter the Chinese move, or even acknowledge force was used. At the time, Beijing was giving it arms and money to fight the United States and Vietnamese troops from the south.
Anti-China sentiment is widespread in Vietnam, and the Hanoi government is vulnerable to charges it is not tough enough against Beijing, something that pro-democracy groups are keen to exploit. Overseas Vietnamese groups and dissidents have traditionally marked the battle.
State-run media outlets have been running stories on the anniversary, which falls Sunday, as well as interviews with families of the victims, who have never received any support from the government. Vietnamese media don't report on issues concerning China without the approval of the government.
"After a long time, the deaths of my husband and others seemed to fall into oblivion, but I'm very glad that they have been mentioned," online newspaper Vietnamnet quoted Huynh Thi Sinh, the widow of the captain of the naval ship who died along with 73 others. "Maybe in his world he's feeling satisfied. His sacrifice is very meaningful. I'm proud."
Authorities in central Vietnam said they were organizing exhibitions and workshops to mark the 40th anniversary of Chinese "illegal occupation" of the Paracels. Dang Cong Ngu, chairman of the Hoang Sa People's Committee, said that candles will be lit on Danang beach to commemorate those who died fighting for the Paracels, including the 74 South Vietnamese soldiers.
The Vietnamese and Chinese navies clashed again in 1988 in the disputed Spratly Islands, killing 64 Vietnamese sailors. That clash has not been marked either.
Illustrating the difficult path the government is treading, online dissident groups announced plans to protest against China in Hanoi on Sunday. Similar demonstrations have occasionally occurred over the past few years. They are normally quickly broken up by authorities, which are highly nervous of any sign of organized public protest.
Vietnam and other states sharing the South China Sea are increasingly concerned over China's growing military and diplomatic assertiveness in pressing its territorial claims in the waters, which are believed to have significant oil and gas reserves. Vietnam's economic dependence on its giant neighbor means its options are limited despite popular demand it speak out.
Last week, Hanoi released a sharply worded statement against Chinese law that requires foreign fishermen to seek Beijing's approval to operate in much of the South China Sea. The move has led to fears of confrontation in the strategic waters.