- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2014

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.

China made the move May 2, just days after President Obama made a tour through Asia with stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines — but not Beijing.

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.”

Vietnamese authorities in recent days arrested more than 400 people after anti-China rallies by some 20,000 workers in an industrial area of southern Vietnam devolved into riots.

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.

Sensitive history plays a role as well: China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody war in 1979.

China seemed to acknowledge Thursday that the protests were triggered by Beijing’s move of an oil rig to waters near the Paracel Islands off the Vietnamese coast. But Chinese authorities also argued that Vietnam was not doing enough to safeguard Chinese property and citizens.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Beijing officially called Vietnam to “immediately take effective steps to stop and punish these crimes, and to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens and institutions in Vietnam,” according to a report by China Daily, a semi-official Chinese newspaper.

The newspaper, which often reflects Beijing’s official policy line, also reported that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended Beijing’s deployment of the oil rig, asserting during a phone conversation with his Indonesian counterpart Wednesday that the area where the rig is positioned is part of Chinese sovereign territory.

China’s stance of protecting its legal sovereign rights is firm, clear and will not change,” Mr. Wang said.

In Washington, State Department officials reiterated Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s remarks this week criticizing the Chinese oil rig move as an act of provocation.

“This is a unilateral action that appears to be part of a broader pattern, quite frankly, of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed areas in a manner that really undermines peace and stability in the region,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Ms. Harf said Mr. Kerry spoke by telephone with Mr. Wang on Monday and “emphasized our strong concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea and stated our view that China’s unilateral introduction of an oil rig was provocative.”

Mr. Kerry has urged Chinese and Vietnamese officials “to de-escalate tensions, engage in high-level dialogue, ensure safe conduct by their vessels at sea and a host of other things as well,” Ms. Harf said.

She acknowledged, however, that Mr. Kerry’s last high-level conversation with his Chinese counterparts was Monday, before violence broke out in Vietnam.

With regard to the protests, Ms. Harf said only that U.S. officials have been “in close touch with national and local authorities [in Vietnam] and have absolutely condemned the violence and the loss of life that’s occurred.”

“While we support people’s rights to protest, we do not, in any way, support violence against Chinese-affiliated businesses or firms in Vietnam,” she said. “[We] absolutely are opposed to that.”

Mr. Bower said the situation has created a predicament for Vietnamese authorities.

“It is a tightrope walk with them because they want to indicate to the Chinese through various diplomatic channels and international opinion that the Chinese aggression is unacceptable,” he said. “But they do not want to provoke China and give it reason to militarize the conflict or attack Vietnam.”

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