Anti-China demonstrators in Vietnam torch foreign factories amid territorial dispute

Protesters targeted foreign factories that they mistakenly believed to be Chinese owned, raising questions over Vietnam's control of anti-China sentiment after a dispute flared offshore.

An employee (l.) of a South Korean company raises her hands while trying to stop protesters in Vietnam Wednesday. Thousands of Vietnamese set fire to factories and rampaged in industrial zones in the south of the country after protests against Chinese oil drilling in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, officials said today. The brunt appears to have been borne by Taiwanese companies as rioters mistook the firms to be Chinese-owned.

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Anti-China protests in Vietnam escalated Tuesday night, as thousands of protesters set fire to factories they believed were owned by Chinese companies, officials said Wednesday. 

The flare-up comes amid anger over China’s deployment last week of a deep-sea oil rig in disputed waters close to Vietnam’s shores. It points to the difficult balancing act Vietnam's communist rulers wish to strike between encouraging some public anger without letting protests escalate too far in the still tightly controlled state.   

Up to 15 foreign-owned factories were torched in industrial parks in southern Vietnam, following government-approved protests, the Associated Press reports. Many other factories were vandalized. 

Most of the affected factories appeared to be run by Taiwanese, South Korean, and Singaporean companies, which were misidentified as Chinese factories by protesters, Reuters reports.

Vietnamese officials gave few details, but said gates to factories were smashed and windows were broken. Police said they were investigating.

A Singapore foreign ministry spokesman said the premises of a number of foreign companies were broken into and set on fire in the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks (VSIP) I and II in Binh Duong. The spokesman said the Singapore government had asked Vietnam to immediately restore law and order, but gave no other details.

About 19,000 Vietnamese were “demonstrating against China’s violation of Vietnam’s territorial waters,” before a smaller group “turned angry, destroying companies’ gates and entering the compounds,” Tran Van Nan, vice chairman of the Bin Duong province’s People’s Committee told local reporters. 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory for Chinese citizens planning on traveling to Vietnam and called Vietnam a “provocateur.”

Protests in Vietnam are rare, Alicia Wittmeyer writes in Foreign Policy, and that they have not been broken up indicates government support – but the risk remains for authorities that protesters will turn to domestic issues, like freedom of speech.

According to Bloomberg, protesters at an anti-China march in Hanoi on Sunday ever so briefly unfurled a banner that read "Freedom for Those Who Love Their Country" -- a reference to bloggers recently arrested.

Call it the tricky art of managing an authoritarian protest. While putting on a sufficient show of anger to demonstrate to another country the sort of pressures building at home, the government must also ensure that such protests don't spiral out of control. Let a protest go too far, and the government could back itself into a corner and wind up unable to negotiate with a country its citizens have been riled up to hate. Then there's the threat that protests expand to include issues that the authorities would rather not discuss: pesky, imprisoned bloggers, for example.

Putting “the genie back in the bottle isn’t easy," Ms. Wittmeyer writes, citing anti-China protests in Vietnam in 2011 that took two months to get under control, even after breakthroughs in diplomatic talks with China.

Orville Schelle, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, wrote on ChinaFile that what’s most concerning about China’s territorial disputes with Vietnam and other countries along the East and South China Seas, is that they center around sovereignty.

This is a serious matter because, for China at least, the question of "territorial integrity" brooks no compromise, which means that there is very limited room left for its diplomats to negotiate, much less compromise. This rigidity, which has deep historical roots, is fed by China's extreme sensitivity to issues which it views involving any blush of territorial encroachment.

One of the quite distinct elements of Xi's new forward foreign policy is a posture that grows out of what might be called a "never again" Chinese attitude that arises from an important part of the "China dream," namely that after more than a century of suffering incursion, quasi-colonization, foreign occupation, unequal treaties and other forms of predation by stronger counties, now that China is strong, it should never again allow itself to compromise -- especially under pressure from the "Great Powers" -- on questions of its territorial integrity.

Tension also flared between China and the Philippines on Wednesday. The Philippines’ Foreign Secretary said that China is reclaiming land on a disputed reef in the South China Sea to build an airstrip or an offshore military base, the AP reports. The two countries are already at odds over last week's arrest by Philippine security forces of Chinese fishermen accused of illegally fishing for protected turtles in Philippine-administered waters. 

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