Tensions have been escalating in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam over the sovereignty of an area that is home to a Chinese offshore oil field.
In May, China began drilling in the area, which is located near the Paracel Islands. The site is claimed by Vietnam, and Hanoi has vociferously objected to China's presence there, which has also caused Chinese companies in Vietnam to come under attack.
The Vietnamese are demanding that China remove all equipment and vessels, arguing that China's actions infringe on Vietnam's sovereignty in regards to the Paracel Islands, as well as to Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Hanoi claims that the drilling is also in violation of international law and agreements between the two countries.
VIETNAM AGGRESSIVELY DISSEMINATING INFORMATION
Problems are not unusual between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, but the response by the Vietnamese government this time is distinctive, firstly in that it is aggressively disseminating information both at home and abroad on China's "illegal actions" and on the "well-intentioned" response by the Vietnamese.
Vietnam promptly convened an international news conference, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced his country's position in a speech at the ASEAN Summit. The government has even released footage of Chinese ships ramming Vietnamese vessels. Furthermore, critical views of China both in Vietnam and abroad have received heavy media coverage, presenting protests from public organizations under the Communist Party's control. In addition to critical remarks concerning China by the U.S. government, as well as by intellectuals from other countries, criticism has even been heard within China itself. Additionally, media outlets officially approved by the government have reported on demonstrations by residents of Vietnamese cities and Vietnamese living overseas.
Yet within Vietnam, there are numerous unofficial organizations and individuals opposed to the Communist Party system and demanding political democratization and civil rights. In discussions, they are criticizing the government's China policies. They frequently organize spontaneous, moderate demonstrations over the South China Sea issue that are separate from government-sanctioned demonstrations, and the government is arresting and detaining some of those involved.
When asked their opinions on the attacks on Chinese companies, Vietnamese intellectuals at home and abroad perceive that the democracy campaigners have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks. Some theorize the attacks were plotted by an anti-Chinese faction within the Vietnamese Communist Party that is at odds with the likes of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, while others speculate that the public security authorities hired thugs to stir up violence for the purpose of sabotaging the democracy movement. Some even believe it is a conspiracy by "agents of Beijing" in order to put pressure on Vietnam. All of these, however, are just guesses.
It is not easy to investigate the facts. Perhaps many of the Vietnamese involved in the acts of violence have long felt dissatisfaction and distrust toward a Chinese presence that seems to have encroached even closer. Reportedly, some Vietnamese employees of Chinese companies endure severe working conditions in terms of pay, treatment and other conditions. There are probably also people feeling their jobs have been stolen by the influx of Chinese "illegal laborers" who are said to number in the hundreds of thousands. While the gap between rich and poor widens on the one hand, corruption is becoming commonplace for those in power who have colluded with Chinese and other foreign capital. One democracy campaigner explains that the object of laborers' disgruntlement is actually directed more toward the Vietnamese government than at Chinese companies.
LIMITS OF GOVERMENT'S POWER
As it promotes a "socialist orientation," today's Vietnam has the same developmental dictatorship system as countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines once embraced. Even if the attacks on the companies were set off by a territorial dispute with China, did they not spew forth from the accumulated repugnance of the Vietnamese government's high-handed development policies?
If by promoting its legitimacy and resolute stance against China in the clash over the Paracel Islands, the Vietnamese government can gain sympathy at home and abroad while stanching criticism of itself, then this dispute may to some degree be to its advantage. However, an escalation of the attacks on Chinese companies and damage to firms from other countries, such as Japan, would expose the limits of the Vietnamese government's power. Vietnam cannot concede to China over the territorial dispute, but should search for a peaceful resolution with China over the attacks.
Ari Nakano is a professor at Daito Bunka University. She did her postgraduate work at Keio University and earned her Ph.D. Her areas of expertise are Vietnamese politics, diplomacy and human rights.