Anti-China protests: Vietnam’s turn

In the recent wave of anti-Japan protests in China, we've wondered how much of it was genuinely spontaneous and how much (contrary to official appearances) state-instrumented. The signals are even harder to read in Vietnam, where several were actually arrested in anti-China protests Dec. 8. At issue is the contested South China Sea and its oilfields, a question that has (paradoxically, for those who can remember back just to the 1960s) caused Vietnam to tilt to the US in the New Cold War with China. Has the regime's anti-China propaganda (and exploitation of hopes for an oil bonanza to lift the nation out of poverty) created something now a little out of control? Or are even the arrests part of a choreographed game?

From AP:

Vietnamese police broke up anti-China protests in two cities on Sunday and detained 20 people in the first such demonstrations since tensions between the communist neighbors flared anew over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

Any sign of popular anger in tightly controlled Vietnam causes unease among the leadership, but anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive. The country has long-standing ideological and economic ties with its giant neighbor, but many of those criticizing China are also the ones calling for political, religious and social freedoms at home.

Police initially allowed about 200 protesters to march from Hanoi's iconic Opera House through the streets, but after 30 minutes ordered them to disperse. When some continued, they pushed about 20 of them into a large bus which then drove quickly from the scene. It was unclear where they were taken, but in the past people detained at anti-China protests have been briefly held and released.

As foreign tourists and Sunday morning strollers looked on, protesters shouted "Down with China" and carried banners bearing the slogan "China's military expansion threatens world peace and security."

Using loudspeakers, authorities urged them to disperse and tried to reassure them.

"The Communist Party and government are resolutely determined to defend our country's sovereignty and territory through peaceful means based on international law," it said. "Your gathering causes disorder and affects the party's and government's foreign policy."

That line about how "anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive" strikes us as a bit naive. It is undoubtedly true, but ignores the longstanding rivalry between the neighbors, and how the Hanoi protests could be of political use to the Vietnamese regime—the loudspeaker dude's admonition that the gathering could "affect foreign policy" is ironically telling. AFP informs us that the protesters attempted to march on Hanoi's Chinese embassy, and that a similar rally was held in Ho Chi Minh City. And the "spontaneous" outburst comes on the heels of another maritime confrontation. Reuters, Dec. 6:
China told Vietnam on Thursday to stop unilateral oil exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, again raising tensions in a protracted maritime territorial dispute with its neighbor.

Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels from waters near China's southern Hainan province, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.

Hong's description of the confrontation last Friday was in contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing ships.

"Vietnam's statement is inconsistent with the facts," Hong said.

And with the leadership change in Beijing, there appears to be a sort of good-cop-bad-cop game going on. Incoming boss Xi Jinping strikes a conciliatory note. From the South China Morning Post, Dec. 6:
The new Communist Party general secretary, Xi Jinping, assured foreign experts in Beijing yesterday that China was not seeking hegemony and would continue to open up to the world.

Xi made the remarks during a meeting with 20 experts from 16 countries at the Great Hall of the People, his first meeting with foreign visitors since his appointment.

"China is following a path of peaceful development," Xi told the experts, who are all working in China.

He added that the country's progress was not detrimental to other countries. China's development "is absolutely not a challenge or threat to other countries. China will not seek hegemony or expansionism," Xi said.

Contrast the more hardline verbiage from the outgoing Hu Jintao. From AFP via the Manila Times, Nov. 9:
Against a backdrop of simmering territorial disputes with its neighbors, President Hu Jintao indicated China would continue to assert its disputed claims to maritime territories as he addressed the ruling Communist Party’s congress.

"We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power," Hu said in his speech to more than 2,200 delegates in Beijing.

His comments were likely to fuel alarm among China’s neighbors, some of whom have watched warily as Beijing builds up its military amid offshore disputes…

"It is not surprising to hear leaders in [China] speak about their intention to engage in maritime activities," said a foreign ministry spokesman in Tokyo. "But those activities must be carried out in a peaceful manner based on international law."

Hu said that China was committed to a peaceful foreign policy but must continue a military build-up that has seen huge sums poured into developing fighting capacities.

Citing "interwoven problems affecting its survival," he said that China must build a "strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing."

Hu called for China in particular to step up the military’s technological abilities, saying its most important task was to be able to "win a local war in an information age."

If China were to get into a "local war" with, say, Vietnam, would it stay local—that is, confined to powers within the sphere of East and Southeast Asia? In fact, would there even be any question about China winning unless another Great Power got involved? You barely have to read between the lines here to see where this is headed…


  1. China, Vietnam mark 1974 seizure of Paracel Islands

    On Jan. 19, some 100 anti-China protesters gathered in Hanoi to mark the 40th anniversary of a naval battle between China and South Vietnam in which China seized the Paracel Islands. The protest was broken up by police after about half an hour, but it is telling that it was tolerated for that long in tightly controlled Vietnam. We can imagine this memory puts the regime in an awkward place. As the AP report notes: "The 1974 battle, in which 74 South Vietnamese soldiers died, followed China's occupation of the Paracel islands. It's especially sensitive because the North Vietnamese government didn't counter the Chinese move, or even acknowledge force was used. At the time, Beijing was giving North Vietnam arms and money to fight the US and South Vietnam."

    The Philippines' Inquirer reports that just days later, China held a three-ship "landing exercises" in the Paracel Islands. Xinhua news agency said the flotilla consisted of an amphibious landing craft and two destroyers.

  2. Vietnamese workers heat up Paracel Islands dispute

    At least 15 foreign-owned factories were set on fire amid anti-China protests at industrial parks in southern Vietnam this week. Hundreds more were attacked by some of the estimated 20,000 workers who protestied in the streets of Binh Duong province. The riots were sparked as China moved a drilling rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam earlier this month. At least 200 people had been arrested over the violence.

    In response to the protests, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Vietnam was the "provocateur." Taiwan summoned the Vietnamese envoy to Taipei after reports that many Taiwanese firms were targeted having been mistaken by rioters for Chinese factories. Singaporean and Japanese plants were also targeted. (BBC News, May 14)

    This level of violence raises the question of whether what started as a state-instrumented anti-Chuna campaign has now taken on a life if its own, and whether the protests are infused with a class rage as well as nationalist sentiment—which could backfire on Vietnam's rulers…

    Vietnam has accused China of massing 80 vessels, including navy ships, to back the oil operation off the disputed Paracel islands. It released video footage to back its claim that Chinese ships had rammed Vietnamese vessels. (BBC News, May 8)

    Earlier this year, Vietnam and the Philippines issued statements condemning a new Chinese law that will require foreign fisherman to obtain approval from China before fishing in large portions of the South China Sea. (Jurist, Jan. 10) But you can bet that the real resource in question here is petrol, not fish…

    The website Paracel and Spratly Islands Forum is openly partisan to the Vietnamese position, but contains much useful historical background. A less detailed but more objective historical outline of the dispute is online at World Statesmen.

  3. China moves second oil rig closer to Vietnam

    China says it is moving a second oil rig closer to Vietnam’s coast, showing its determination to press its territorial claims and continue searching for resources in disputed waters despite a tense confrontation with Vietnam over another oil rig to the south. The new rig is being towed southeast of its current position south of Hainan Island to a new location closer to Vietnam, China's Maritime Safety Administration said, asking vessels in the area to give it a wide berth. The move has sparked new anti-China protests in Hanoi. Ships from the two countries have been confronting each other for more than 40 days near the first rig off the disputed Paracel Islands. (AP, June 20)