China riles Vietnamese

China riles Vietnamese

Anti-China riots in southern Vietnam have caused waves of problems and questions which still are not settled. Factories lie in ashes, hundreds are in jail and China has made theatre by "evacuating" thousands of Chinese workers from Vietnam. The May 13 riots represented a serious turn of events between the historically fractious neighbours. But it also must be noted that the riots began with a Chinese show of force apparently designed to spark an extreme response.

It is certain that the Hanoi regime allowed large anti-Beijing protests and rallies last week. Political-type demonstrations are tightly controlled in the country. It is less clear whether the protesters got out of hand, or whether the Vietnamese government also pretended not to notice when the fires started. Hanoi now must move to clean up this situation, which was largely if not completely of its making.

Two Chinese people died in the violence. More than 100 were injured, 16 of them critically. Damage is still being assessed, but "many" factories were destroyed, or badly damaged. Most of the violence was directed against Chinese and allied Taiwanese facilities. And at least one Thai-owned factory was damaged by its own Vietnamese employees.

China has the right to protest, even to play the victim. Vietnam's police stood by while factories burned and people died. The 500 post-riot arrests only attest to the general feeling of outsiders that Vietnam wanted the anti-China protests and even violence.

China also must face many questions. Last week's violence was all about the insupportable actions of China, aimed directly at Vietnam. The latest incident near the Paracel Islands, claimed by Hanoi and occupied by China since 1974, seemed to be unprovoked harassment against Vietnam. China placed a billion-dollar oil rig the size of the Rajamangala National Stadium pitch, squarely in the Paracel region.

There is no existing study showing a likelihood of actually striking oil. And when Vietnamese ships went to the area to assert their national claims, the Chinese Coast Guard rammed and provoked the smaller Vietnamese vessels. The Chinese assaulted Vietnamese sailors with water cannon. The assaults and arson of the southern Vietnam mob cannot be supported but, in the context of Chinese hassling, it is understandable.

The only factories that went completely unharmed in the mob attacks in southern Binh Duong province last week were flying US flags. So it was not a mindless rage. Vietnamese have stated in the past they expect the United States to confront China, and to protect Vietnam and Asean partners in case of Chinese aggression. Despite the policy of President Barack Obama to "pivot" US military forces to Asia, there is no sign Washington has the intention — some say the stomach — to do any such thing.

China has refused for many years to discuss overlapping territorial claims. Worse, it has knocked aside every serious attempt even to adopt an Asean-sponsored code of conduct to make assaults at sea unlikely. And while China has taken the steps around the Paracels for no reason except that it can, with impunity, other forces are at work. Beijing seemed to be sending a message to last week's Asean summit when it picked up the Vietnamese complaint against China.

Of course Asean will never actually adopt a stance that China dislikes. Even if Asean seems to abandon its unity principles, it will continue to sideline disputes. The US and Asean hold strong hands in this dispute, but refuse to play them.

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