Tensions over China’s offshore territorial dispute with Vietnam have given rise to the worst crisis between the two countries in decades.
Over 20 people were killed in an industrial park during recent clashes that saw Vietnamese mobs chase down and beat Chinese workers. This episode of violence also saw Taiwanese and other foreign workers targeted because they were mistaken for Chinese nationals.
Cases of mass looting and arson have also erupted in areas of southern and central Vietnam targeting Chinese nationals and business interests, and reports indicate that anti-China unrest has swept through 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces.
China’s recent decision to setup a $1 billion deep-water oil drilling rig in a disputed area of the South China Sea that Vietnam also lays claim to triggered the latest waves of violence.
Beijing has maintained an unwavering stance on maritime disputes, and regards the Paracel Islands near the drilling site (known as the Xisha Islands in China) as its sovereign territory. The islands have no permanent human residents except for Chinese military personnel and fishermen, and are valued for productive fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves that China would like to develop without depending on exploration agreements with Western oil companies.
The controversial oil rig is located some 17 miles south of the southwestern-most land feature in the Paracels, and within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that China demarcates based on its claim to the islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The rig itself is 120 miles off Vietnam’s Ly Son Island and thus on Vietnam’s continental shelf and well within Hanoi’s EEZ.
Although China recognizes the territory as its own and may have some legal historical justification for its position, Beijing was fully aware that drilling in the area would be perceived as a provocation. China has confirmed it has no plans to abandon the drilling, and has called on the US to take on a neutral stance on territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbors.