BANGKOK—A rare public protest held on Sunday in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi illustrates how seriously the country’s government takes what it describes as Chinese violations of its sovereignty.
On Sunday morning in Hanoi, hundreds of protesters gathered for half an hour outside the Chinese Embassy, not far from a landmark statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, in the center of the capital. Some apparently came after rallying calls made on social networking sites such as Facebook, despite the latter being officially blocked in Vietnam. After being turned back by police, some of the gathering paraded through city’s streets as far as Hoan Kiem Lake near the old town, chanting anti-Chinese slogans and carrying placards in Vietnamese and English with slogans such as “Protesting Against China Causing Trouble.” In Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling commercial capital in the south, demonstrators converged on the Chinese consulate on Sunday.
The protests came after the Vietnam’s Communist government and state-owned oil company PetroVietnam accused Chinese ships of cutting underwater survey cables linked to a Vietnamese oil exploration boat, which was operating 187 kilometers (116 miles) off the Vietnamese coast, according to state-run media in Vietnam. The alleged sabotage is said to have taken place on May 26, within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, but comes amid a long-running and region-wide dispute over who controls what in the South China Sea. The Paracel Islands and the more southerly Spratly Islands in the South China Sea—which is known as the East Sea in Vietnam—are thought to sit in potentially resource-rich waters in the middle of a strategically important sea-lane.
China claims a “special economic zone” based on a U-shaped delineation off its coast, which appears to encompass much of the South China Sea and encroaches upon parts of the waters claimed by other states.
In a separate incident, Vietnam alleged that Chinese naval boats fired warning shots on June 1 at Vietnamese fishing boats working inside Vietnamese waters. China’s Foreign Ministry described the actions as “regular maritime law enforcement and surveillance activities in the waters that fall under China’s jurisdiction.”
Public protests are rare in Vietnam, as is the apparent granting of official sanction to public anti-Chinese sentiment. The Vietnamese government has in the recent past jailed bloggers and blocked websites critical of China, with Hanoi particularly sensitive to commentary about the Chinese-run bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands. Occasional public protests by farmers against state-backed land grabs have been disbanded, sometimes with the use of force. Vietnamese media has carried little or no coverage of the protests and ensuing changes of government in North Africa and the Middle East.
The protests and the dispute come as one-party state Vietnam prepares to select a new government, after May elections for its national assembly. The Communist Party of Vietnam won 91.6 percent of the 500 seats, officials announced last Friday. The remainder were won by candidates that were pre-approved by the authorities.
On Friday in Singapore, China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met with Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh, according to Xinhua, the state-run Chinese news agency. Liang made no mention of the recent dispute, other than to make a vague reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In contrast, Vietnam’s state-backed press has been let off the leash to a degree, running stories and commentary pieces excoriating what they describe as Beijing’s bullying tactics.
“Vietnam has sufficient evidence to sue China at international jurisdiction agencies, against its flagrant infringement of Vietnam’s continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, sabotaging normal and legal operations,” said the former chief of the Vietnamese government’s Border Committee, lawyer Tran Cong Truc, in an interview with VietNamNet.
In the past, Vietnam’s press has usually steered clear of covering disputes with China, or found itself blocked from doing so by the government.
The South China Sea dispute has attracted wider attention, with China’s Liang meeting with US counterpart Robert Gates at the annual Shangri-La conference in Singapore over the weekend. Commenting on recent tensions in the South China Sea, Secretary Gates said that “I fear that without rules of the road and agreed approaches to dealing with these problems that there will be clashes.”
In total, if Taiwan is included, seven countries have claims on the South China Sea, namely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as China and Vietnam.
China raised tensions in 2010 by claiming the sea as its own, prompting the United States to weigh in at the 2010 Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to mediate a multilateral solution to the dispute, drawing a hostile reaction from Beijing.
The latest China-Vietnam dispute comes as the Philippines says it will raise its own concerns at the United Nations about what it says is illegal Chinese activity inside its territorial waters
“These actions of Chinese vessels hamper the normal and legitimate fishing activities of the Filipino fishermen in the area and undermine the peace and stability of the region,” Manila’s Foreign Ministry said in a news release posted on its website on Saturday.Show