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Mining Exploration in Vietnam: China's New Strategy of Expansionism
Thi Q Lam

Mining Exploration in Vietnam: China's New Strategy of Expansionism

New America Media, Commentary, Thi Lam

Not content with leaving its imprint in the Parcel Islands, Vietnam's northern provinces and the Spratly Islands, China is now resorting to mineral exploration in the country itself as a new strategy in its relentless expansionism.

In November 2007, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung reportedly approved China's large-scale project to mine aluminum ore, or bauxite, in the Central Highlands in exchange for financial aid. The decision of the communist party triggered a torrent of criticisms and objections from scientists, intellectuals, military and religious leaders.

The project's opponents voiced deep concerns about the disastrous effects of the mining on the environment, the uprooting of local ethnic Montagnards and, more importantly, the de facto Chinese occupation of the strategic Central Highlands.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam's famed war hero, asked that the aluminum ore mining plan be postponed until international scientists had a chance to study its impacts on the environment.

Venerable Thich Quang Do, head of the banned United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, called for a month of “peaceful demonstration at home” to protest against the Chinese bauxite exploration plan. In a statement, he said the project “will destroy the forests of the Central Highlands, pollute the basalt-rich red soils, increase the risk of prolonged periods of drought or flooding, and seriously contaminate water supplies, thus directly threatening the economic development of the southern region of Central Vietnam.”

Despite the outcry, mining operations by China's Chalco Group began in 2008.

According to the Mineral Information Institute, bauxite is first processed aluminum oxide, which is then refined into aluminum by energy-intensive electrolysis. Vietnam's aluminum ore reserve - an estimated 7.5 billion tons -- is potentially worth $700 billion (USD).

According to Nguyen Thuy Trang, a United Nations official in charge of a program to protect the environment in Africa, bauxite conversion into aluminum oxide generates two toxic chemicals known as “red dust” and “red mud.” Red dust inflames the lungs and can cause cancer of the respiratory system. Red mud, an iron-rich residue, can cause harm to the reproductive system and birth defects.

It is estimated that the production of one ton of aluminum requires four tons of bauxite and releases three tons of carcinogenic red mud. In the long run, toxic chemicals would foul waterways in the Central Highlands and damage the flatland ecology of the Mekong Delta.

Moreover, the destruction of forests and cropland to make room for the mining operations and the establishment of camps and villages for the Chinese workers would displace indigenous tribes, leading to the irreparable loss of their culture and way of life.

The presence of Chinese workers and soldiers in the strategic Central Highlands constitutes a serious threat to Vietnam's national security, critics say.

“We know that China has established a strong naval base in Hai Nam,” wrote Gen. Nguyen Tan Vinh, former Vietnam ambassador to Beijing, in a letter to members of the Vietnamese politburo. “Now, we let China exploit bauxite in the Central Highlands, and there will be from 7,000 to 10,000 Chinese workers or soldiers who will be stationed and work there; a Chinese town, a military base will take shape in our crucial strategic area. In the north of our country there is a strong naval base, in our west there is a fully equipped army base, thus what will happen to the independence, sovereignty for which we have traded millions of lives and a lot of bones and blood?”

Vietnamese military leaders have every reason to be concerned. The Central Highlands is geographically important. It is a natural gateway that would allow Chinese forces, using a large pincher movement, to cut the country in half or to threaten the southern part of the country.

In 1975, former President Nguyen Van Thieu's unfortunate decision to abandon Pleiku and Kontum in the Central Highlands allowed North Vietnamese generals to execute deep envelopments in the South, resulting in the quick collapse of ARVN forces.

Aluminum is used in building construction, packaging and car manufacturing - industries hard hit in the current economic slump. According to news reports, China's Chalco Group, which is mining bauxite in Vietnam, reported heavy losses in 2008. The company said the losses were due to earthquakes and snowstorms in China, the global economic crisis, and a drop in prices for metallic products in the global market. The company said it expects more losses in 2009.

Beijing does not appear to be dissuaded by financial setbacks in its mineral exploration, however, as bauxite mining may be, after all, simply a cover for a larger sinister scheme.