HANOI/MANILA: Thousands of Vietnamese set fire to foreign factories and rampaged in industrial zones in the south of the country in an angry reaction to Chinese oil drilling in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, officials said yesterday.
The brunt of Tuesday’s anti-China violence appears to have been borne by Taiwanese companies in the zones in Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces, as rioters mistook the firms to be Chinese-owned. There were no reports of casualties and the rioting appeared to have subsided yesterday.
The row over the South China Sea and anti-China violence in tightly-controlled Vietnam have brought relations between Hanoi and Beijing to one of their lowest points since the Communist neighbours fought a brief border war in 1979.
“I fear a dark chapter in Sino-Vietnamese relations is now being written,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. And because China wants to keep that oil rig in place into August, these protests could just be the first pages.”
Tran Van Nam, vice chairman of the Binh Duong People’s Committee, said workers initially held peaceful protests on Tuesday. But disorder broke out when the numbers swelled to about 20,000. Gates were smashed and rioters set 15 factories on fire, he said.
“This caused billions of dong (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in damages and thousands of workers will have lost their jobs,” Nam said by telephone.
FY Hong, president of Taiwan’s Formosa Industries Corp, one of the companies that was attacked, said about 300 rioters looted televisions, computers and personal belongings of workers.
“The situation was like in a country where there were no authorities to protect its people,” Hong said.
A police official in Binh Duong province, speaking by telephone, said about 200 people had been arrested.
“Everyone is terrified,” said Serena Liu, chairwoman of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. “Some people tried to drive out of Binh Duong, but looters had put up road blocks.”
Storey said the Vietnamese government would now be under increasing pressure to respond, which could risk a military clash at sea with China that Vietnam could not win.
Dozens of ships from both countries are around the oil rig, and the two sides have accused each other of intentional collisions, increasing the risk of open confrontation.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that China was seriously concerned about the violence and had summoned Vietnam’s ambassador to protest.
China has “demanded the Vietnamese side make efforts to adopt effective measures to resolutely support eliminating illegal criminal acts and protect the safety of Chinese citizens and institutions,” Hua said. Anti-China sentiment was also evident in Manila, as the Philippine government accused Beijing of reclaiming land on a reef in disputed islands in another part of sea, apparently to build an airstrip.
“If these reports are true, this would represent a significant step by the Chinese, potentially allowing them to extend their airborne reach,” said Storey, the analyst.
The spike in tensions over the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea comes two weeks after US President Barack Obama visited the region and expressed support for long-time allies Japan and the Philippines, both of which are locked in territorial disputes with China. Vietnam is also stepping up ties with the United States.
Philippine foreign affairs department spokesman Charles Jose said China had been moving earth and materials to Johnson South Reef in recent weeks.