May 10, 2014 9:08 pm

China, Vietnam face looming standoff over oil rig in South China Sea

WATCH: (May 10, 2014) Beijing has demanded that Vietnam withdraw ships from around a Chinese drilling rig, the latest volley in an escalating standoff over parts of the South China Sea.

HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnamese anger toward China is running at its highest level in years after Beijing deployed an oil rig in disputed waters. That’s posing a tricky question for Vietnam’s leaders: To what extent should they allow public protests that could morph into those against their own authoritarian rule?

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At one level, the ruling Communist Party would like to harness the anger on the street to amplify its own indignation against China and garner international sympathy as naval ships from both countries engage in a tense standoff near the rig off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

But Vietnam’s government instinctively distrusts public gatherings of any sort, much less ones that risk posing a threat to public order. And they also know that members of the country’s dissident movement are firmly embedded inside the anti-China one, and have used the issue to mobilize support in the past.

On Saturday, around 100 people protested outside the Chinese Consulate in the country’s commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, watched on by a large contingent of security officers. Dissident groups have called for larger demonstrations on Sunday in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi, the capital.

The two Asian nations have a history of conflict going back 1,000 years, and the streets of Vietnam’s cities are named after heroes in those fights. In the more recent past, the navies have twice had deadly engagements in the South China Sea. There was a brief but bloody border war in 1979. All have a created a deep well of mistrust toward China among ordinary Vietnamese.

Yet the two countries share a Communist ideology and close economic ties, making the China-Vietnam relationship highly sensitive topic. The latest round of tension — the worst since 1988, when 64 Vietnamese sailors were killed in a clash with the Chinese navy — had led to fresh and awkward questions over that relationship, a normally taboo topic in the state-controlled media.

© The Associated Press, 2014

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