In Vietnam's anti-Chinese protests, violence will only add fuel to fire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 8:30am

Vietnam has complicated its dispute with Beijing over South China Sea resources by failing to prevent anti-Chinese violence. The deaths and damage caused by mobs rampaging through factories has worsened already frayed relations and harmed the nation's international image and standing. A government that so tightly controls dissent should have had no trouble keeping protests peaceful. Instead, it has allowed circumstances to spin out of control, leading to regrettable consequences.

Hundreds of Chinese have fled the country in the wake of the unrest, which centred on factories in central and southern Vietnam. There have been deaths - it is unclear how many - and dozens of injuries. Some Chinese have been reported missing. The burning, vandalism and looting of buildings has caused millions of dollars in damage and lost production. Hong Kong and Taiwan have warned citizens against travel to the country and business and investor confidence has been rocked.

Protests are unusual in Vietnam, where the government is intolerant of dissent. As tensions grow with China over contested oil and gas reserves and fisheries, though, Hanoi has sanctioned demonstrations to push a nationalist agenda. Mobilising large numbers of people is not difficult given Vietnam's love-hate relationship with its giant neighbour, which has invaded and occupied the country repeatedly over the centuries. But the strategy has backfired with its efforts to pressure Beijing over its moving last week of an oil rig into waters off the disputed Paracel Islands and the subsequent rammings of rival ships in accompanying flotillas.

Security forces and police were noticeably few in number when hundreds of Vietnamese workers took on Chinese colleagues at a giant Taiwanese steel plant under construction in central Ha Tinh province on Wednesday and the previous day when protesters ran amok at mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Singaporean factories in southern Binh Duong province. The demonstrations quickly got out of control and authorities struggled to restore order. Hanoi claims more than 600 rioters were arrested.

Violence and nationalism are not solutions to problems. Disputes over territory and resources can only be resolved by dialogue and negotiations. As Vietnam works towards this goal with China, it has to ensure anti-Chinese sentiments are kept in check and those behind the unrest appropriately punished.