Vietnamese protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi, Sunday. Pic: AP.

Tensions are rising between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea. The recent move by China to locate a US$1 billion oil rig in waters that Vietnam claims as its own has stirred up emotions within the country.

After weekend protests across the country, anti-Chinese sentiment is still high in Vietnam with calls for the boycott of Chinese products and even rumours that Chinese nationals have been turned away from hotels and businesses.

The oil rig is located near the Paracel Islands, a long-disputed territory between the two countries.  China and Vietnam fought a war over the islands in 1974.  In total, the two countries have fought one land battle and two naval battles with each other over a period of 40 years.

(UPDATE: Factories torched in anti-China protest in Vietnam)

The South China Sea, in addition to being a prime fishing area, is also believed to harbor large deposits of oil and natural gas – a strong attraction for energy hungry China.  Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan all have put forth claims on different parts of the sea.

Sunday saw the gathering of several hundred protesters outside of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, and thousands more roaming the streets. Displaying signs with slogans like ‘Denounce the Chinese Invasion’ and ‘China Get Out’, the protestors were expressing their clear frustration over an increasingly aggressive China. The demonstrators also sang patriotic songs.

The gatherings were the largest anti-China protests that have been seen there in years. In addition to Hanoi, protests were seen in cities throughout Vietnam, including in Ho Chi Minh City.

However, it is not just the people of Vietnam but also the government who are clearly angry at China’s actions.  In an unusual step that marked the depth of frustration that the Vietnam government is currently feeling against China, journalists were allowed to cover the protests – this is usually unheard of as the government is generally keen to play down any unrest within the country. In the past, the government has often been worried that any large-scale rallies could lead to a joining together of anti-government protestors. It appears to be willing to run the risk in this case.

Protestors demanded that China remove its oil rig from the disputed waters and respect Vietnam’s territorial integrity. However, some protestors also criticized the Vietnamese government for being too timid in its response to the Chinese encroachment – to many in the Vietnamese Communist government, China remains an ideological ally and they are thus loathe to be too aggressive in their reaction to China.

But other participants at the protests also expressed concern about what would happen if tensions between the two countries escalated too far – China’s military is far larger than Vietnam’s, and is growing fast.

Despite their energetic nature, the protests over the weekend remained peaceful. Many protestors promised that they would return again if China did not respond appropriately.

Vietnam’s online community has also been up in arms about China’s actions.  Facebook has been particularly active with numerous posts denouncing China’s actions.

Official protestations
Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, has accused China of “dangerous and serious violations”. His statements were made during the recent 24th ASEAN Summit in Burma, which was held last week and ended on Sunday.  China’s recent actions were a tense topic of discussion throughout the meetings.

Vietnam and the Philippines pushed for strong action to be taken by the ASEAN community.  The Philippines is also engaged in its own territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands, also in the South China Sea.  However, all members urged that the situation with China be resolved peaceably and in line with international law.  Whether this points more to the reasonableness of the ASEAN community or its recognition that it represents no match to China’s overwhelming military power is a matter for debate.

In its final statement after the Summit ended, ASEAN called for all sides to remain calm in maritime disputes, but, in a possible victory for Beijing, did not mention China by name.

China’s officials say they are unconvinced by Vietnam’s, or any other country’s, claims on the disputed territories and have urged ASEAN to ignore the controversy and continue building a more solid relationship with China – read there is money on the line if they make the wrong choice.

China is one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners, but there is a history of sour feeling between the two countries that goes back years.

The United States to the rescue?
China has often been content to play the long game with regards to territory it regards as its own, preferring to move deliberately and stealthily, nibbling around the corners until slowly but surely it has steadily encompassed its target.  However, these new blatant actions, backed up by a clear show of force, are a new tactic by a country that appears to be increasingly willing to flex its newly created military might.

The outcome of these events might well hinge upon the actions of the United States. If the US moves beyond expressing verbal condemnation over Chinese actions and shows a willingness to provide material support to countries in the region, this could cause a recalculation on the part of China.  However, in order to avoid a loss of face to all sides involved, China must be given the chance to retreat gracefully

The US has called China’s actions provocative and has called for calm from both sides.  US Assistant Secretary of State, Daniel Russel, was in Hanoi last Thursday; during his trip he urged all sides to “refrain from unilateral action”. But it is not yet clear just how committed the US is to keeping the peace in the region.

Increased conflict
On Monday, Vietnamese and Chinese boats attacked each other with water cannons as they circled the disputed oil rig.  According to government news sources in Vietnam, this was the first time that Vietnamese naval vessels have responded to Chinese actions around the oil rig. However, both countries have accused each other of ramming each other’s ships.

There are also rumors that China has deployed military jets in order to support their ships, but this has not been verified as of this time.