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Analysis

China rig inflames historic feud

China’s deployment of an oil drilling rig off Vietnam’s coast near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on May 1 has sparked a wave of anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam, inflaming centuries-old animosity between the two communist neighbors.

The rioting that erupted on Thursday and Friday in central Vietnam left two Chinese nationals dead and a hundred others injured, and deepened the standoff over the rig between Chinese and Vietnamese maritime vessels in waters disputed by both countries.

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The violence was one of the worst encounters among rival claimants over territories in the South and East China Seas in recent months. The rioting was so virulent and xenophobic that it prompted China to send ships to evacuate more than 3,000 of its nationals from Vietnam.

BBC reported that in recent days crowds have set fire to at least 15 foreign-owned factories—including Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean businesses—in several Vietnamese industrial parks.

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News correspondents reported that nationalist sentiment is currently riding very high in Vietnam over the Chinese deployment of the oil rig, an action that US officials have denounced as “provocative.”

Reuters reported from Washington that an unnamed US official has said, “This (the rig installation) is raising some questions about China’s long-term intentions,” adding that Beijing’s move “appeared to fit a pattern of advancing territorial claims through coercion and intimidation.”

A US official was quoted as saying that China’s activities are “straining US-China relations because it raises questions about our ability to partner together in Asia or even bilaterally.”

Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the Chinese general staff who is visiting Washington, defended the deployment of the rig and blamed Vietnam, saying China could not afford to lose an inch of territory, Reuters reported.

Obama blamed

He also blamed US President Barack Obama’s policy of a strategic shift to Asia, saying it had encouraged countries such as Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines to make trouble for Beijing.

Vietnam and China are now locked in one of the worst breakdowns in their relations since they fought a brief border war in 1979. The crisis erupted after a visit by Obama to Asia in late April, in which he pledged that the United States would live up to its obligations to defend its allies in the region, particularly Japan and the Philippines.

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China’s animosity was most centered on Vietnam, with which China has a long history of relations.

According to research of historical material reported by The Associated Press (AP), Vietnam was ruled off and on for more than a millennium by Chinese dynasties who regarded Vietnam as a conquered province.

That period of domination 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.

In recent years, Hanoi’s friendship with Beijing cooled after Vietnam drew closer to the Soviet Union, during their bitter rivalry for leadership of the communist bloc in the 1960s.

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, a close ally of China, Chinese forces invaded Vietnam in 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 dispute and maritime rights in the Gulf of Tonkin.

According to this historical narrative, China and Vietnam remained in control of the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea.

Tensions rising

China’s increasingly aggressive assertions in the pursuit of its territorial claims and desire to exploit vast oil and gas reserves believed to be lying underneath these islands are exacerbating tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines and other claimants to territory in the South China Sea.

China’s expansionist pressure has driven Vietnam to increase its security cooperation with the United States.

On the level of people-to-people relations, Vietnam is regarded as extremely wary of China’s domination.

According to the AP research, many Chinese take a condescending attitude toward Vietnam.

In trade, China exports far more to Vietnam than it imports, further fueling Vietnam’s anxiety about being swallowed by its giant neighbor.

China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, while China exports to Vietnam account for only about 1 percent of its total foreign trade.

Forty years ago, according to BBC, dozens of Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a bloody battle with Chinese troops over disputed islands in the South China Sea. This year, Vietnam’s state media is publicly marking the event, publishing numerous articles on the battle.

The commemoration comes as the Chinese government proclaims new rules requiring foreign fishing vessels to seek Beijing’s permission to operate in most of the South China Sea, an action likely to raise anti-China rhetoric in the Vietnamese press.

(To be continued on Wednesday)

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TAGS: China, feud, foreign relations, History, sea dispute, Vietnam
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