Violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam are refocusing attention on Beijing’s regional muscle-flexing, with China appearing ready to exacerbate tensions with a number of its neighbors while the United States is distracted by Ukraine and other crises.
Public frustration toward Chinese sovereignty claims over the South China Sea came to a boil in Vietnam after the China National Offshore Oil Corp. moved a deep-sea oil drilling rig to a patch of islands roughly 150 miles off the Vietnamese coast.
The reaction in Vietnam produced the most violent popular demonstrations in the tightly controlled country in decades.
Some regional analysts say Beijing knew full well that the oil rig maneuver would heighten tensions in the region and likely infuriate Vietnamese nationalists, but proceeded anyway with apparent confidence that the Vietnamese government would be forced to accept the activity and that Washington would do nothing about it.
“Beijing has decided that Washington is distracted and doesn’t have the gut for a serious intervention and so they made this geopolitical move of placing this drilling rig on the Vietnamese continental shelf,” said Ernest Z. Bower, a senior analyst focused on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I call it sea grabbing by the Chinese,” said Mr. Bower, who compared the development to what many Western analysts describe as Russia’s “land grabbing” in Ukraine with the effective annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The Chinese move off the coast of Vietnam is “very much like Crimea in that the Chinese have the capability and the will and the gumption and they’re going for it,” Mr. Bower said. “This is about China asserting itself.”
Authorities in Beijing, he said, likely calculated that the Vietnamese government, known for keeping a tight control over its population, would crack down on any protests because the outbreak of serious anti-China activity in Vietnam would risk provoking “Chinese reactions that could be very dangerous.”
Although many protesters said they were targeting Chinese-owned factories, several buildings owned by Taiwanese and South Korean companies also were ransacked.
Several independent media reports have cited serious property damage at as many as 15 foreign-owned factories in southern Vietnam this week.
Despite the Vietnamese government’s crackdown, The Associated Press reporting Thursday that a 1,000-strong mob had stormed a Taiwanese steel mill, killing at least one Chinese worker and injuring 90.
The spread of unrest is a major challenge for Vietnam’s authoritarian and secretive leadership and is damaging the country’s reputation as an investment destination. The AP report said many Taiwanese firms that employ Chinese workers in Vietnam are bearing the brunt of the violence.