HANOI, Vietnam — Several hundred protesters demonstrated peacefully outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, on Sunday, criticizing the country’s giant northern neighbor amid heightened tensions over a maritime standoff in the South China Sea.
Similar anti-China protests occur sporadically here, often in response to Chinese maritime aggression, and the government grudgingly tolerates them before arresting or dispersing protesters using uniformed police officers and gangs of men in plain clothes with video cameras who are widely presumed to be security agents.
But the Sunday morning protest, in sweltering humidity, occurred days after relations between the Communist-ruled countries hit their frostiest point in recent years after China parked an oil rig in waters near the Paracel Islands, which China controls and Vietnam claims.
The crowd on Sunday was larger than the several dozen people who usually turn up for such events, and the government took the rare step of permitting journalists from the state-controlled news media to cover the protest, where many signs displayed aggressive slogans like “Denounce the Chinese Invasion.”
Territorial Disputes in the Waters Near China -- China has recently increased its pursuit of territorial claims in nearby seas, leading to tense exchanges with neighboring countries.
“We don’t have a problem with Chinese people or their culture, but we resent their government conspiring against us,” Nguyen Xuan Pham, a literary critic, said as the protest swelled in a public park across from the embassy and a military museum. The maritime standoff with China, which has controlled the islands since 1974, has been a hot topic in Vietnam’s state-controlled news media and on Facebook, where the vast majority of the country’s urban middle class communicates. China is one of Vietnam’s major trading partners, and both countries have nominally socialist one-party governments.
But Vietnamese officials sometimes appeal to a latent anti-China sentiment here that is bolstered by bitter memories of a 1979 border war with the Chinese. The government is said to walk a fine line between wanting to appear strong against China and fearing that shared anti-China sentiment could unite disgruntled citizens who dislike the government’s foreign policies and have festering grievances over land grabs, religious persecution and other hot-button social issues. At the Hanoi event, protesters presumed to be plainclothes agents occasionally shoved and yelled at other protesters, but uniformed security personnel largely sat by idly, chatting among themselves and checking their cellphones.
The Hanoi protesters mostly echoed indignant statements made last week by Vietnamese officials characterizing China’s action as a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty, but saying a military response would only be considered as a last resort. Rumors circulated in the crowd that some of the most vocal protesters had actually been sent by the government. Several activists and dissident bloggers in Hanoi who have protested publicly over domestic issues in the past said Sunday’s event was more about showing a united front against China than anything else. There were reports circulating on Facebook on Sunday of a similar protest in Ho Chi Minh City, the nation’s business capital and largest city.
But although many were adamant that China remove its oil rig, known as HD-981, from the disputed waters, some also criticized Vietnam’s handling of the dispute, saying the government should be more assertive. The Foreign Ministry has not issued any statements about the dispute on its website since Wednesday, when it held a high-profile news briefing in central Hanoi featuring senior officials and the chief executive of PetroVietnam, the state oil and gas monopoly. “Vietnam’s top leaders should call a press conference, and top leaders should clearly demonstrate their attitude so that the Vietnamese people can know what they are thinking,” said Lan Le, 40, a Hanoi fashion designer. The prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was in Myanmar on Sunday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where the maritime dispute was expected to top the agenda.
Tuong Vu, an expert on modern Vietnamese history and politics at the University of Oregon, said Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party was broadly divided between a conservative faction loyal to China and another that advocates systemic economic reforms and strengthened ties with the United States and other Western countries.
He said there would be fierce debate within the party about how to respond to China’s action, fueled by concerns about the long-term economic and political implications of the standoff.
The pro-China faction has held the upper hand since the 1990s, Mr. Vu added, and it would surely prefer to negotiate a solution to the current impasse through diplomatic back channels rather than by criticizing China too directly, partly out of fear that a further escalation would do more damage to the bilateral relationship and possibly embolden domestic criticism of the government. “They’ll just let the issue quiet down slowly and try to gradually return to the status quo,” Mr. Vu said. “But who knows? In the next week, the protests may occur on a much larger scale, and things may take a different direction.” Giap Van Duong, a commentator on Vietnamese current affairs in Hanoi, said wounds from decades of conflict had still not healed for many Vietnamese, and that there was scant public appetite here for another war.
He said that Vietnam’s leaders should internationalize the dispute by pursuing broad multilateral negotiations over the sea with other countries. “Security in this sea is very important,” partly because it contains busy international shipping lanes, he said on Friday. Mr. Duong said the dispute would have short-term economic repercussions for Vietnam, but that he hoped it would also prompt the country to distance itself from the Chinese economic orbit by developing higher-value major exports beyond the current ones of seafood, agricultural products and raw materials.
But Dinh Minh Quan, a technology entrepreneur in Ho Chi Minh City whose company, Dinh Vi So Corporation, manufactures tracking devices for vehicles, said he imported the equivalent of $500,000 a year in electronics from mainland China, and he feared a drawn-out dispute would force him to import the same material at higher cost from Singapore or Hong Kong. “We need to have a plan” to find alternate suppliers, Mr. Quan said by telephone. “Otherwise it will be a serious problem.”
Vietnam holds anti-China protest over oil rig
"This is the largest anti-Chinese demonstration I have ever seen in Hanoi," said war veteran Dang Quang Thang, 74. Tensions escalated in the South China Sea when China deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981, a billion-dollar rig meant to drill for oils in waters claimed by both nations. China says the rig is legal and claims the zone it was placed in belongs to Beijing, and a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that it is operating "completely within the waters of China's Paracel Islands" which the country has occupied since the 1970s. "Our patience has limits. We are here to express the will of the Vietnamese people to defend our territory at all costs. We are ready to die to protect our nation," he told AFP.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, called the deployment a "violation of Vietnam's sovereign rights" because the rig was placed in waters that Vietnam has sole rights to exploit for resources.
The two countries had signed an accord in 2011 to peacefully resolve disputes about the South China Sea, but China has been accused of going out of its way to humiliate the Vietnamese with its latest move.