A Vietnamese protester holds a banner in a rally against Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in the contested waters of the South China Sea, outside the Chinese Embassy on Sunday. Pic: AP.

Being the “big man on campus” has its drawbacks. Just ask former colonial powers like the United Kingdom and France. Just ask the United States, arguably the most simultaneously loved and hated nation in history. China has also been on the receiving end of a substantial share of hate throughout history. Recent attacks on Chinese businesses in Vietnam are nothing new. Attacks on Chinese merchants and communities in times of strife have marked Southeast Asia’s history. Some of these attacks can be classified as ethnic violence against a cultural “other”, spurred on by perceived advantages of Chinese immigrants or their descendants. Nationalist movements in local or immigrant communities never helped ease tensions either.

Asia is a global landscape, now more than ever, and China’s recent economic aspirations mean there is new cause for conflict between locals and anyone perceived to an exploitative interloper. For instance South Korean and Taiwanese businesses and workers have also been victims in Vietnam’s latest strife.

From the Guardian:

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been running high in Vietnam ever since Beijing deployed an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea on 1 May. There have been encounters including ramming and exchanges of water cannon between Chinese vessels operating near the rig and boats from Vietnam, which wants China out of the area.

Nam Quan Pass, China-Vietnam border. Pic: Viethavvh (Wikipedia Commons)

How easily the scramble for resources between stately powers pours over into ethnic or nationalist conflict. After all, what do Chinese shopkeepers have to do with an oil rig in the South China Sea? And what do Vietnamese rioters hope to benefit or lose in this situation?

Vietnam, like China, is a nominally communist state pursuing rapid economic development, largely through the liberalization of trade and other capitalist practices. It has been described as a “China on steroids”, pursuing economic growth — including some green growth strategies — and competing with its larger neighbor. It may be worth noting that Vietnam’s brand of communism was pro Soviet (Marxist-Leninist) rather than Maoist-Chinese like Cambodia, with which Vietnam entered into war in 1975. Vietnam’s ousting of Cambodia’s China-backed Khmer Rouge later precipitating a short war with China in 1979. Perhaps regional wars leave the longest-lasting scars.

A similar situation to the one in Vietnam is taking place between China and the Philippines with regards to the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, a region of great ecological value. And the issues over resources, nature and sovereignty are complex and confusing.

From Chosun Media:

The Philippines has claims in the South China Sea including many of the Spratly islands. China says it has indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, which is believed to have major oil and gas reserves, is rich with marine life and has heavily travelled shipping lanes.

As China hunts for resources throughout South East Asia it is not strange that there should be some backlash, misplaced or not. Myanmar, with its rising civil society, is another growing hotbed of anti-Chinese sentiment. Immigrants and goods from China, alongside rapid and sometimes-reckless development at the hands of Chinese firms are tried and tested ways of fermenting anti-Chinese anger.

Yet China is beyond a doubt top dog in the region, with Chinese holidaymakers now comprising the main source of business for the tourist industry in regions like the Mekong River valley in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Riots in Vietnam are surely not what those in the hospitality business want in any of these countries. They surely prefer Chinese tourists, who come, spend money and leave with the promise of returning for future holidays.

Mekong River, Laos. Pic: Adam Jones (Flickr CC)