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It’s being called the worst rioting in Vietnam in years: Thousands of protesters becoming violent; burning and looting factories outside Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon – to oppose an oil rig that China has sent into waters claimed by Hanoi.
Two people are dead and at least 129 injured after a mob attacked and set fire to two Taiwanese-owned factories. Reports quote Vietnamese officials as saying the violence has spread to 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, with additional deaths.
It began fairly quietly on May 13, when as many as 20,000 people held peaceful protests in the province of Binh Duong near Ho Chi Minh City. Some of the demonstrators broke away and attacked foreign-owned factories, including some from South Korea and Taiwan. But the actual target of the protesters’ anger was China.
On May 1, Beijing sent an oilrig into an area of the South China Sea that Hanoi claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. This zone, which extends up to 200 miles from the Vietnamese coast, was set up as part of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Vietnam’s EEZ overlaps with China’s own self-declared EEZ, which it calls the “nine-dash line.” In the middle of that overlap sits the recently arrived Chinese oilrig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981.
For more than 60 years, China has put its own interpretation on which country controls how much of the South China Sea, ignoring UN agreements on such issues.
The “nine-dash line” runs very close to the central Vietnamese coastline.
The overlapping EEZs began to present problems between the two countries about 35 years ago, when a UN survey of the region indicated the possibility of large oil and gas deposits in the area.
China and Vietnam have rarely been good neighbors, and in 1974, the then South Vietnamese government tried to drive Chinese fishing vessels from the overlapping zones. China responded by taking over the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam, and has held them ever since.
Like the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands to the south also are in an area said to be rich in oil and gas. The Spratlys are now controlled by China, although the group of about 200 islands previously had been claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as by Vietnam.
Despite their historical differences, China and Vietnam signed a treaty in 2011 with an eye to resolving these territorial disputes, and Hanoi has allowed energy companies to search for energy in the region. But establishing an oilrig is, in Vietnam’s view, more than merely exploring.
Yet there is little Vietnam can do. China is a giant both geographically and militarily, especially compared to Vietnam, and Hanoi cannot merely count on a large ally to press China on its behalf. Further, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has many members who favor close ties with China.
And so with Vietnam unable to force China to remove the rig, it appears the protesters have decided to act on their own – with the rare support of their government, which normally forbids any public protests.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about the China-Vietnam dispute at his daily news briefing on May 14. He replied that such disputes “need to be resolved through dialogue, not through intimidation.”
The U.S. State Department defended the right of Vietnamese citizens to demonstrate their frustration, but urged restraint.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com