May 22, 2014 12:00 am JST

Vietnamese fed up with much more than China's oil rig

DEBBY WU, Nikkei staff writer

TAIPEI -- Anger over an influx of Chinese workers is fueling the anti-China protests gripping Vietnam.

     Public outrage boiled over last week at news of China deploying a giant oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters -- and protecting it with numerous warships. Although protesters have been targeting mainly Chinese businesses, many factories belonging to Taiwanese, South Korean and Japanese companies have also been vandalized. Foxconn, the Taiwan-based contract manufacturer that assembles many of Apple's gadgets, suspended its Vietnam production to ensure the safety of its staff.

     As many as 21 people have died in the riots, according to reports from Reuters, and mass rallies are expected to take place again on May 25.

     Thomas Jandl, a longtime Vietnam watcher at American University in Washington, D.C., said Vietnamese workers are increasingly angered by the influx of illegal Chinese immigrants and their own treatment by foreign managers.

     Jandl said that while northern Vietnam has indeed seen an increase in the number of Chinese laborers working at local mines and marrying into Vietnamese families, rumor and gossip have probably exaggerated the numbers.

     "A trickle turns into a torrent in the local stories," he said, but the issue of foreign companies hiring Chinese workers "is definitely there."

     The protests escalated quickly "as a result of other grievances -- rude or brutal Chinese or Korean or Japanese or Taiwanese foremen," Jandl added. "And once a riot breaks out, nobody rationally (differentiates) anymore between Taiwan, China, Korea, etc."

     Yen Chen-shen, a research fellow at the National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei, said Taiwanese companies are being attacked partly because they regularly hire Chinese nationals as midlevel managers.

     "Vietnamese workers hold a grudge against Chinese," Yen said. "Chinese managers (at Taiwanese companies) are getting paid better. Vietnam also doesn't like Taiwan's claim on South China Sea waters."

     That claim is based on the "nine-dotted line," the boundary along a huge swath of disputed ocean that Beijing also uses as the foundation for its maritime claims. The main contested areas along this line are around the Paracel and Spratly islands, which are believed to be rich in undersea oil deposits.

     The disputed waters are also a key international shipping lane, which is one reason Washington has weighed in on the matter by condemning Beijing's actions as "provocative."

     According to China's Ministry of Public Security, police chief Guo Shengkun phoned his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Dai Quang, on May 17 and urged him to "ensure the safety and interests of Chinese citizens in Vietnam."

Joining forces

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines are solidifying a united front to deal with territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.

     Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is scheduled to visit the Philippines on May 21-23, during which time he is expected to meet with Philippine President Benigno Aquino to discuss countermeasures against Beijing.

     The standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese ships around the oil rig has lasted two weeks. With no resolution in sight, many Vietnamese are calling for the country to sue China under international law. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh has said legal measures are an option.

     Manila has already started down this path. It began seeking arbitration last year under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, arguing that China's claim to the entire South China Sea has no legal basis. Proceedings began last July, despite China's repeated requests for the suit to be withdrawn.