HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnam’s prime minister 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 Thursday and into Friday to subscribers via major cellphone operators — all state-owned — 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 standoff 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. One Chinese worker was killed and scores more injured at a huge Taiwanese steel mill that was overrun by a 1,000 strong crowd.
“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 last 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.
The U.S. 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, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said after a meeting 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 Gen. Fang Fenghui blamed Vietnam for the off-shore standoff, asserting that China was operating in its own territorial waters. He vowed China would continue its oil drilling and would not allow Vietnam to disrupt it.