Tension is rising in Vietnam with protests reported nationwide amid the country's dispute with Beijing over a Chinese oil drilling platform deployed near the Paracel islands.
According to local newspapers in Hanoi, thousands of workers at Hong Kong and Taiwanese factories in South Vietnam were taking to the streets, calling for China to remove a giant state-run oil rig from Vietnamese waters.
A hotel at a popular beach town reportedly is refusing Chinese guests, and Vietnamese tourists are canceling trips to China.
Over the weekend, hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, with similar protests taking place across the country. More protests are expected to take place this week.
Vietnam's state-controlled media usually only carry muted coverage of diplomatic relations with China. This week there has been extensive reporting, however, on the confrontation and the protests.
Vietnam expert and former U.S. diplomat David Brown said initial reports of the oil rig incident were more restrained, but then quickly changed.
“This was from a guy at one of the mainstream papers who said they had been told that they could reprint anything they had got from foreigners. But they were supposed to be careful about what they wrote otherwise, that was the first day or so,” said Brown.
Vietnam’s Communist Party has long stressed the economic and political importance of what it calls the East Sea, an area believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves.
However, Block 143, where China's state-owned oil rig HD-981 was towed earlier this month, is not being developed. Professor Carl Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said there’s “a kind of consensus among oil industry people that it’s not the most promising.”
“Bloc 143 is not being developed. Vietnam has made little efforts to do so, so in other words they are just arguing to maintain their Exclusive Economic Zone. If you go to the next block, there are operations going on there. ExxonMobil are a couple of fields away,” said Thayer.
Some observers have speculated that the move was driven by the China National Offshore Oil Company, CNOOC, though Thayer disagrees.
“I’ve heard that the China National Offshore Oil Company, when asked to go there initially, argued back that no, it was too costly to operate over an extended period of time and it wasn’t a high priority for them. Then they were ordered to go in,” he said.
Thayer said the issue is about sovereignty, not economic gain.
This was the message repeated by the local Vietnamese media over the last week, which ties in with the government’s strategy to seek international support to counter China and avoid military engagement.
At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Burma, also known as Myanmar, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued a statement saying the “extremely dangerous situation has been and is directly threatening peace, stability and maritime security and safety in the East Sea.”
Vietnam Major General Le Van Cuong, Former Chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Strategy Institute said the prime minister is clearly calling for international support. He said previous responses of Vietnam have not lived up to the seriousness of the situation, but this time was different.
However, at China's foreign ministry this week, spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Monday that the South China Sea is not a problem between China and ASEAN nations. She said China has a consensus with ASEAN countries on insuring safety and stability in the sea.
In Vietnam, there are concerns tensions could continue to escalate. At a news conference in Hanoi, Cuong said many people worry about the imbalance of military forces between Vietnam and China. But he said Vietnam has history on its side.
He said he believes Vietnam has nothing to worry about. If the world isolates China, he asked, how can it survive?
He compared Vietnam’s economic weakness to countries like France, which Vietnam defeated in 1954, and the United States in the 1970s.