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Confronting the Communist State: The Sino-Vietnamese Land-Maritime Border during the Cold War, 1949-1979 Open Access

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This dissertation joins a vibrant conversation that explores Asia’s past from the point of view of its borderlands, which tend to be peripheral to the centers of state power while at the same time a prime locus for the enactment and realization of state authority. Willem Van Schendel’s work on Bengal borderlands (2004) and C. Patterson Giersch’s study of Qing conquest of the Tai domains of China’s Yunnan frontier (2006) both examine the ways that border-making of the central governments shaped the lives of borderlands residents. James C. Scott (2009), by contrast, emphasizes how borderlanders make their own history by evading and resisting the state in his study of Southeast Asian highlands. However, despite excellent works on state institutions and indigenous people at borderlands, scholars have not addressed how the broader international structure shaped boundary-making and border-crossing in Asia. Therefore, existing literature falls short in demonstrating how global trends affected local society at the political margins.This dissertation examines how the Cold War diplomacy and conflicts interplayed with the expansion and consolidation of modern states in the Sino-Vietnamese land-maritime border, which connected two communist countries. It fills the historiographical gap by linking international history, which typically focuses on high-level diplomacy, and borderlands history, which studies local society on the ground. Based on central and local level archival sources in Chinese and Vietnamese as well as western intelligence reports, this project analyzes how the concurrence of the nationalization of people and the internationalization of socialism shaped the boundary-making and state-building by the Chinese and Vietnamese communists at their shared borderlands and the Gulf of Tonkin. Driven by the forces of nation-building and socialist brotherhood, the Chinese and Vietnamese party-states collaborated in reorienting their respective people away from the border toward the central government while seeking to establish and perform a socialist partnership between the two countries at the border. As a result, the cross-border movement of people and goods became more visible, manipulable, and taxable to the communist states. The Indochina Wars, however, reversed the process of consolidation of state at the border by creating increased momentum for the spontaneous cross-border flows of people and goods that the modernizing states had to accommodate.The project makes three interdisciplinary contributions. First, while existing scholarship largely adopts a leadership-centered approach, I offer a border-focused yet transnational narrative of Sino-Vietnamese relations that clarifies the volatile bilateral relationship between the two Communist countries. Second, my project challenges established area studies methods, which typically begin with knowledge of national territories, instead emphasizing a “neighboring” effect on modern state-building. Third, the project contributes to the emerging field of borderlands studies in non-western context. It demonstrates that Communist institutions such as the state-planned economy and internal surveillance regime were effective tools for the political elites in post-colonial countries to nationalize the ethnic frontiers.

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