Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung sent a text message to millions of citizens urging them to act in defence of the country’s sovereignty following China’s deployment of on oil rig in disputed waters, but said that “bad elements” shouldn’t be allowed to engage in violence.
The message, sent late on Thursday and into Friday, didn’t directly condemn the riots that have broken out this week following China’s decision to deploy the rig off the coast of central Vietnam on May 1. Vietnamese patrol ships sent to try and disrupt the rig are currently locked into a tense stand-off with Chinese ships guarding it.
Anti-China protests that started peacefully have ended in violence and vandalism this week, with 400 factories suspected to have links with China destroyed or damaged by mobs.
At least two people have been killed according to the official Xinhua news agency and as many as 21 Reuters reported on Thursday, citing a doctor working at a hospital in central Ha Tinh province, with scores more injured.
“The prime minister requests and calls on every Vietnamese to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law,” the text message said. “Bad elements should not be allowed to instigate extremist actions that harm the interests and image of the country.”
Vietnam’s authoritarian leaders typically clamp down on public protests of any sort, but have allowed them this time. The unrest has been subject to a media blackout, but reporters and television stations have been permitted to cover the peaceful protests, a clear sign of state sanction.
The government appears to be trying harness the nationalist sentiment of its people to send a message of protest to Beijing and garner international sympathy. But it has to be careful that the forces it unleashes don’t end up triggering chaos in a country with a long history of popular anti-China sentiment.
Neither China nor Vietnam has shown any sign of compromise. China and Vietnam have tussled for years over the competing claims, as have the Philippines and China. But Beijing’s desire for oil and gas, and its growing economic and military might, have seen it take an increasingly assertive stance to its claims in the sea, triggering increased tensions and incidents between it and claimant states.
The anti-China violence on the streets is only inflaming the relationship further.
China’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement late on Thursday night saying Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated China’s “strong condemnation and stern protest” over the violence against Chinese and other foreign nationals and businesses in a phone call to Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh.
“Vietnam has an inescapable responsibility for the actions of the lawless elements who attacked Chinese businesses and individuals,” Wang said.
Foxconn Technology Group, a major manufacturer of Apple’s iPhones and iPads, announced on Friday it would let workers at its Vietnam facilities take three days off, starting from Saturday, for safety reasons, the company said in a statement on Friday. Foxconn, whose flagship unit is Hon Hai Precision, did not elaborate further.
The US doesn’t take a side in the disputes, but shares many of the concerns of Vietnam and the Philippines about China. It is seeking closer economic and military ties with both nations. It has described China’s deployment of the rig as “provocative.”
In Washington, US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey said after a meeting on Thursday with his Chinese counterpart that in a world where information moves so fast, “issues afloat quickly become issues ashore as we’ve seen today in Vietnam.”
People’s Liberation Army’s Chief of the General Staff General Fang Fenghui blamed the unrest on the Obama administration for its ‘pivot’ to Asia and called on Vietnam to back down in the off-shore stand-off, asserting that China was operating in its own territorial waters. He vowed China would not cede an inch of it territory and would continue its oil drilling and would not allow Vietnam to disrupt it.