WASHINGTON/BEIJING/HANOI – The outbreak of deadly protests against China in Vietnam raises the stakes for the United States, which has rallied behind Beijing’s neighbors but faces ugly new realities.
Demonstrations have now spread to a third of Vietnam’s provinces, with workers attacking Chinese workers and factories in a wave of nationalist outrage after Beijing moved a deep-water drilling rig into waters claimed by both countries.
Up to 21 people reportedly had been killed as of Thursday, including two Chinese workers, and a huge Taiwanese steel project had been set ablaze.
A state-run Chinese newspaper on Friday backed the use of “non-peaceful” measures against Vietnam and the Philippines, which also has territorial disputes with China.
“The South China Sea disputes should be settled in a peaceful manner, but that doesn’t mean China can’t resort to non-peaceful measures in the face of provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines,” the Global Times newspaper, which often takes a nationalistic tone, wrote in an editorial. “Many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China’s sincerely peaceful intentions.”
The escalation has come despite months of U.S. cajoling for an easing of tensions over the myriad disputes in the South China Sea and over a separate conflict between China and Japan in the East China Sea.President Barack Obama has put a high priority on building relations with Southeast Asia, seeing the region as economically dynamic and eager for warmer U.S. relations as China grows stronger.
Vietnam has been a case in point, readily seeking military ties with the United States in a dramatic shift for the onetime war adversaries.
On Thursday, a top Chinese general defended the deployment of the oil rig, blaming Hanoi and saying China cannot afford to “lose an inch” of territory.
During an official visit to Washington, Gen. Fang Fenghui also blamed Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia as Vietnam and China grapple with one of the worst breakdowns in relations since the neighbors fought a brief border war in 1979. Fang said some nations had seized on Obama’s vows to rebalance military and diplomatic assets to Asia as an opportunity to create trouble in the South and East China Seas.
Fang, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said the oil-drilling rig was operating in China’s territorial waters.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met Fang at the White House, where “the vice president underscored the United States’ serious concern about China’s unilateral actions in waters disputed with Vietnam,” his office said in a statement Thursday. “The vice president reaffirmed that while the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims, no nation should take provocative steps to advance claims over disputed areas in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.”
Biden’s unusually strong comments were the latest in a string coming out of the U.S. on Thursday. The State Department reiterated its criticism of China’s “provocative” decision to install the oil rig. “We are very concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation of this kind,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. Erecting the rig “is a unilateral action that appears to be part of a broader pattern, quite frankly, of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed areas in a manner that really undermines peace and stability in the region.”
Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security, said of the violence in Vietnam: “I think this poses a huge dilemma for the United States. It’s not enough to have a strategic dialogue between Hanoi and Washington. We really have to reassure the Vietnamese public — not just the government — that there are going to be agreed-upon rules and that Vietnam will not be victimized.”
Separately, a senior U.S. official said Beijing’s “provocative” actions in maritime disputes with its neighbors are raising questions over how the world’s two biggest economies can work together.
“This is raising some fundamental questions for us about China’s long-term strategic intentions,” the official said in an interview. He said Beijing’s move appears to fit a “pattern” of advancing territorial claims through coercion and intimidation.
“China’s activities are straining the U.S.-China relationship because it raises questions about our ability to partner together in Asia or even bilaterally,” he warned.
The official dismissed Fang’s accusation over the U.S. pivot as “a fundamental misreading” of U.S. strategy and said China’s assertiveness would only encourage other countries to seek greater U.S. involvement in regional diplomatic, economic and military affairs.
Washington insists that its Asia-Pacific re-engagement is not meant to contain China’s rise but that Beijing must conduct itself according to international norms.
“We’re concerned that China has learned the wrong lessons from Russia and Ukraine and has decided that unilateral assertion is the way to advance China’s interests,” the official said.
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — and perceptions of limited U.S. options to get Moscow to back down — have heightened unease in parts of Asia over whether Beijing will be emboldened to use force to pursue its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the violence in Vietnam risks playing into the hands of Beijing, which would consider itself the aggrieved party. China has accused Hanoi of “connivance” with rioters.
“It certainly complicates American calculations, because the U.S. tends to want the people it supports to be pristinely pure and good, and attacking foreign direct investment muddies that,” Cheng said. He said that the violence — also targeting businesses from Taiwan — risks making Vietnam appear “a lot less pleasant” as an investment destination.
Asia as a whole could ultimately be the loser if foreign investors decide the region is too risky, Cheng warned.
China was similarly hit by violent protests in 2005 and 2012 against Japanese businesses. Some Tokyo officials linked those troubles to the Beijing government.
Vietnam, which generally keeps a tight lid on political unrest, had been seen as taking a more conciliatory approach toward China than the Philippines, which has similar disputes with Beijing but has shown defiance both at sea and in international bodies.
Ernie Bower, the chairman of Southeast Asian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Vietnam — which has thousands of years of complex relations with China — had been “trying hard not to take the bait, as they are students of the Chinese approach.” But the violence in Vietnam “plays right into China’s hands” by giving Beijing a rationale to dig in on its stance, Bower said.
China’s intense pressure campaign, including the deployment of the oil rig and clashes at sea, are likely part of a strategy of growing assertiveness since President Xi Jinping assumed power last year, according to Bower.
Bower said he would not be surprised if China followed up by imposing a self-declared air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, as it did in November in the East China Sea despite protests by Japan, South Korea and the United States.
“We’re just seeing the real Xi Jinping,” Bower said. “I think that this is actually part of a broader plan and that this is not the last provocation we will see.”