Following the deployment by China of an oil rig in disputed waters between China and Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots have swept Vietnam, bringing Chinese-Vietnamese relations to their lowest level in recent years.
The demonstrations started shortly after China moved an oil rig, referred to as Haiyang Shiyou 981, within 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam. This position is also 17 nautical miles off of the disputed Paracel Islands.
The Paracel Islands lie at the heart of the controversy over the oil rig. The Paracel Islands are a group of small islands in the middle of the South China Sea with no native population. Both Vietnam and China place historical territorial claims to the islands. Prior to 1974, the islands were controlled by the navies of China and South Vietnam. Following a naval battle in 1974, China took the whole group of islands from South Vietnam. Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam renewed its claim to the Parcels, and the dispute has continued ever since.
The dispute over the oil rig and the Paracels also ties into different interpretations by Vietnam and China over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which both Vietnam and China are signatories. Vietnam claims that the oil rig falls within the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) granted to it by UNCLOS, and thus violates Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty along with UNCLOS. China claims that it falls within its territorial waters that are adjacent to the Paracel Islands it controls.
Regardless of the validity of each of the two country’s legal claims, one thing clear through all of these murky interpretations of international law is that the placement of the oil rig has raised significant anger on the Vietnamese side. Vietnam has declared that it will “apply all necessary and suitable measures to defend its rights and legitimate interests.” At the 24th ASEAN Summit in Burma, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared that China’s placement of the rig was “brazen”, “ gravely violates the international law”, and that China’s action was “dangerous”.
In response, the Chinese side has been equally provocative. The state-run newspaper Global Times backed “non-peaceful” measures against Vietnam and the Phillipines, said that Vietnam should get a “lesson it deserves to get”, and declared that “many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China’s sincerely peaceful intentions”. Meanwhile, the chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Fang Fenghui, declared at a press conference that it was actually the Vietnamese who were being provocative, that the Paracels were “”border territory which has passed down from our ancestors into the hands of our generation – we cannot afford to lose an inch”, ending with “We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble.”
The situation around the rig has only gotten worse since it has been deployed, with both sides claiming the other side has rammed its ships and used water cannons, while the Chinese have deployed ships to protect the rig, and have accused the Vietnamese of erecting barricades and fishing nets around the rig in order to impede the rig.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground on Vietnam has become violent. Anti-Chinese protests have erupted all across Vietnam in response to China’s actions, and the protestors have targeted foreign factories believed to be Chinese, but have also turned out to be Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian or South Korean. More than 400 factories were damaged by the mobs. The casualties resulting from the protests are still unclear with the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirming that two Chinese nationals had been killed, while other sources said that 21 people had been killed. Over 100 are believed injured. China has charted planes and ships in order to evacuate 3000 Chinese nationals in Vietnam.
At the time of this writing, it seems that the protests have mostly calmed with over 1400 protestors having been arrested, and Vietnam having deployed massive numbers of security forces throughout the country. However, what’s clear is that the formerly cordial relations between the two states have been seriously damaged, with China’s Foreign Ministry declaring that the violent protests had “undermined the atmosphere and conditions for exchanges and cooperation between China and Vietnam” and that the Chinese side was suspending diplomatic contacts, along with issuing a warning against travel to Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Prime Minister sent out a mass text message warning people not to participate in the protests, but at the same time calling for Vietnamese to “to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law”. As Vietnam continues to deal with China, the Vietnamese government will likely remember the consequences if it is seen as being soft on China by the Vietnamese populace. And unless China moves the rig, China has likely just given the US further reason to justify its pivot to Asia.