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Beijing vows to keep drilling amid deadly Vietnam protests

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-16

A top Chinese general has vowed to protect a controversial oil rig in a disputed area of the South China Sea, which has triggered deadly protests in Vietnam and led to one of the deadliest confrontations between the two communist nations since 1979.

Tensions between China and Vietnam flared on May 1 after Beijing moved the deepwater drilling rig into waters that Hanoi claims. 

Protests began Tuesday in the southern province of Binh Duong, where crowds set fire to industrial parks and factories, hunted down Chinese workers and attacked police. The riots have since spread from the south to the central part of the country.

Early Thursday morning a 1,000-strong mob stormed a giant Taiwanese steel mill in the central province of Ha Tinh. Five Vietnamese workers, and 16 others described as Chinese, were killed during the rioting, a doctor at a Ha Tinh hospital told Reuters. As many as 149 people were injured in the attack.

The anti-Chinese protesters inadvertently drew several other Asian countries into the dispute when they mistakenly damaged factories owned by nationals of other Asian countries. Taiwan, whose factories suffered the most damage, said on Friday it would coordinate with Japan and other nations to press Vietnam for compensation.

China responds

China has accused Hanoi of acting in concert with protesters who hit the streets in major Vietnamese cities, mobs torching foreign-owned factories, as long-simmering enmity between the communist neighbours boiled over on the streets.

Chinese General Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said China would continue to operate the rig – near a contested island – in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety, bringing it into dispute with several of his neighbours. He spoke during an official visit to the US.

“What we’re going to do is ensure the safety of the oil rig and ensure the operation will keep going on,” Fang told a news conference after talks at the Pentagon.

Vietnam had sent in ships to try to disrupt the drilling, he said through an interpreter, “and that is something that we are not able to accept.”

Hanoi has alleged Chinese vessels rammed its patrol ships and turned water cannons on them.

But Fang said China had taken a “prudent” approach in the South China Sea and only now had set up the oil rig after other countries started drilling.

“I don’t believe there is any problem with China doing this drilling activity within its own territorial waters,” the general said at a joint press briefing with his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, who was critical of Chinese actions.

There is a history of rivalry between China and Vietnam, particularly over the contested Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Deadly protests

Fang’s response came after worker demonstrations spread to 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, according to the Vietnamese government, which called for “tough measures” to bring the escalating situation under control before alarmed foreign investors pull out of the country.

Hundreds of Chinese nationals have fled across the border into neighbouring Cambodia, according to police there, amid fears that a wave of patriotic fervour initially encouraged by Hanoi is getting out of hand.

But Pham [who gave only his first name to protect his identity], a Vietnamese journalist based in Binh Duong, told FRANCE 24 that the protests there were not violent at first.

“There was no violence until some [Vietnamese workers for Chinese oil companies] attempted to withdraw money from the bank,” Pham said. “The Chinese companies had blocked their access to their accounts. Before that, the workers were calm but the blocked accounts really triggered their anger. It was an error on the part of the Chinese companies and it led to violence.”

He also said that police were slow to respond to the violence. Vietnam’s communist regime, wary of public gatherings that could threaten its authoritarian rule, has in the past alternated between tolerating anti-China rallies and violently breaking them up.

Pham explained this complex dynamic to FRANCE 24.

Interview with Vietnamese journalist

“The government encourages these [anti-China] protests but only if they are state-regulated,” Pham said. “If they aren’t, the protests are considered illegal. There are more and more spontaneous protests in Vietnam but these ones in particular were incited by the state."

Pham explained why these protests, in particular, had been allowed to spread. "Since the Chinese entered Vietnam’s territorial waters, protesting has become a way to show patriotism against the invaders. Before, protesting against China could land you in prison, but not this time.”

However, faced with widespread violence, the Vietnamese government finally arrested 500 people on charges of looting and arson.

US concern

Washington is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the resource-rich South China Sea, where several countries and territories have overlapping claims.

Biden and Fang met at the White House, where “the vice president underscored the United States’ serious concern about China’s unilateral actions in waters disputed with Vietnam,” his office said in a statement.

“The vice president reaffirmed that while the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims, no nation should take provocative steps to advance claims over disputed areas in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.”

Biden’s unusually strong comments were the latest in a string coming out of the US the same day.

While Fang held talks at the Pentagon, the US State Department reiterated its criticism of China’s “provocative” decision to install the oil rig.

“We are very concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation of this kind,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

 

Date created : 2014-05-16

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