BEIJING—China’s deployment of an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast near the Paracel Islands has prompted a tense sea standoff and touched off deadly anti-China rioting. The conflict pits two neighbours with very similar governments but whose people bear ill feelings rooted in a rivalry that dates back centuries and has occasionally burst out into armed conflict.
The ancient history
Vietnam was ruled off and on for more than a millennium by Chinese dynasties who regarded the southern region as a conquered province. That formally ended in 938 with the defeat of a Chinese force, although China briefly annexed Vietnam again during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century.
Vietnam’s friendship with China cooled after Hanoi drew closer to the Soviet Union, China’s bitter rival for leadership of the Communist camp. Then, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime—a close Chinese ally. Chinese forces poured across the Vietnamese border in early 1979 in retaliation and to curb Soviet influence. Although China began pulling out after 29 days, border skirmishes continued for years. Diplomatic relations were normalized in 1991, and in 2000 the two countries settled their land border and maritime rights in the Gulf of Tonkin, sparking protests from Vietnamese nationalists who argued that Hanoi had made too many concessions.
The two sides remain in dispute over control of the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea. China’s increasing assertion of its territorial claims and desire to exploit oil sources are exacerbating tensions with Vietnam and others in the region, especially the Philippines. As a result, Vietnam is increasing its security co-operation with the U.S. in what Beijing sees as a broader scheme to stymie its rise as the region’s dominant power. However, there reportedly are factions in Vietnam’s Communist Party that take a more pro-Beijing line and believe the issues can be settled on a party-to-party basis.
Relations between their people
Vietnamese are extremely wary of Chinese domination, while many Chinese take a condescending attitude toward Vietnam, dismissing it as a petty upstart. China-Vietnam football games frequently lead to on-field battles and fan violence, and anti-Chinese protests are one of the few activities within tightly controlled Vietnam in which ordinary citizens are allowed to take to the streets, though violence has been rare. Trade is robust, although China exports far more to Vietnam than it imports from the country, further fueling Vietnamese anxiety about being swallowed up by its northern neighbour. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, while China’s exports to the country account for only about 1 per cent of its total foreign trade.
This week’s violence
China angered Vietnam on May 1 by towing a massive drilling platform run by a state-owned company near to the Paracel group claimed by both sides. That has led to repeated confrontations between patrol craft from both sides, and to what Vietnam says have been injuries to several of its sailors. Since mid-week, motorcycle-riding rioters in Vietnam have looted and set fire to several foreign factories known to employ mainland Chinese workers, though many of the facilities belong to investors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. China says it holds Vietnam’s government directly responsible for the violence and demands restitution.
Where will it end?
Although open warfare is considered unlikely, neither side shows signs of backing down in the rig standoff. Vietnam is proving true to its legacy of stiff resistance to what it sees as Chinese bullying, while one of China’s top generals said Thursday that Beijing wouldn’t give up “one inch” of what it considers its sovereign territory. China says the rig will be removed at the start of typhoon season on Aug. 15, offering a temporary respite from the feud.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.