What explains the anti-China riots in Vietnam?

Festering anti-China sentiments have erupted in Vietnam with riots at foreign-owned factories, causing extensive damage and injuring more than a hundred people. Vietnam reported one fatality, while Xinhua news agency said two Chinese workers were killed.

What triggered the protests? 

Tensions between China and Vietnam spiked this month after China moved a deep-sea oil drilling rig on May 1 to disputed waters off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, called the Xisha islands by China. Vietnam sent vessels to disrupt the rig’s operations, prompting China to retaliate by ramming and firing water cannon on Vietnamese boats. The repeated skirmishes, covered extensively by Vietnamese media, led to a groundswell of nationalistic fervour and triggered widespread anti-China protests in major cities. 

This is one of the worst breakdowns in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the neighbours fought naval battles over the contested Paracel and Spratly islands in 1974 and 1988, and a border war that killed tens of thousands in 1979.

What is China’s position? 

China maintains that its oil rig is positioned in Chinese territory and so its drilling activities are completely legal. China’s claim stems from its long-held assertion that its maritime borders are defined by the nine-dash line, which stretches from its southernmost province of Hainan to a large part of the South China Sea, including the hotly contested Paracel and Spratly islands. 

“The drilling activity of this rig is within China’s territorial waters. The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China’s sovereign rights.” -Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying 

What is Vietnam’s positon? 

Vietnam claims China has encroached on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as the Chinese oil rig is positioned 120 nautical miles east of Vietnamese coast. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) rules that a country has special rights over the use of marine resources in waters that extends up to 200 nautical miles from its coastal baseline. 

“We have shown that we are patient and self-restrained in the face of Chinese aggressive acts ... (but) our patience is limited.” -Ngo Ngoc Thu, deputy commander of Vietnam’s maritime police 

Why are the islands contested?

The Paracels are claimed by both China and Vietnam. The two countries, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, also claim all or parts of the Spratlys. The two island chains may have rich reserves of natural resources around them, although there has been little detailed exploration of the area, and estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas. The sea is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

Who were affected by the protests?

Rioters attacked and looted foreign-owned factories in the industrial zones in central Ha Tinh province and southern Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces. These factories are owned by investors from places including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

In southern Binh Duong province, thousands of workers targeted factories in two Singapore-run industrial parks on May 13. Ninety-nine factories were damaged in the two parks, which are joint ventures between Becamex IDC Corp and a Singapore consortium led by Sembcorp Development.

In Ha Tinh province, hundreds of protesting workers stormed Taiwan's Formosa Plastics Group plant on May 14, attacking its employees. The company said one of its Chinese workers died and 90 others were injured. Taiwan's Vice-Economics Minister Shen Jong-chin said more than 100 Taiwan-owned firms were attacked and 10 set on fire. Other foreign-owned companies were also affected, although the number was not clear.

Cambodian National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said hundreds of Chinese workers have fled, most of them to neighbouring Cambodia via road. At Ho Chi Minh City airport, large groups of Chinese were reportedly seen queuing to grab tickets for flights to Malaysia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Singapore and China.

What is the impact on foreign investment?

Export-orientated manufacturing is a key pillar of Vietnam’s economy, with electronics giants such as South Korea’s Samsung and suppliers to sportswear labels like Nike and Adidas among those producing goods there. An exodus of foreign firms would deal a heavy blow to an economy already hit by sluggish domestic demand, banking sector troubles and financial malaise among state-owned companies. But if authorities bring the situation under control quickly, experts say the impact could be limited.

What's next?

Experts say Hanoi has allowed some public protests to go ahead as a means of expressing extreme discontent with Beijing, but must now act to stop the violence spiralling. The communist leadership “has a difficult task of riding popular opinion in such a way that it doesn’t appear to be doing China’s bidding but isn’t letting the situation get out of control either,” said Dr Bill Hayton, author of "Vietnam: Rising Dragon”.

Experts say Vietnam’s authoritarian rulers, who usually keep a tight rein on public dissent, would have the capability to crack down hard on the unrest if needed. “The government has considerable assets to use to restore law and order including urban local self-defence groups and rural militia, the military and the people’s armed police. The situation is uncertain but further outbreaks are likely to be squelched,” said Professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Source: Reuters, AFP, BBC, Global Security