China-Vietnam dispute in a nutshell


The recent tensions between Vietnam and China have rocked the peaceful Asia-Pacific region. Here is the basic background. As a Vietnamese national, I try to keep this as objective as possible.


What happened?

In early May 2014, China moved a giant drilling rig, named HD-981, into the area claimed by both China and Vietnam on the Southeast Asia Sea (aka South China Sea), escorted by 70 vessels including armed navy ships.

The Vietnamese government protested, sending its coastal guards to ask the Chinese to move out. The Chinese refused, instead using ships to ram into the Vietnamese, injuring around 10 officers.

They then circled around to protect the rig, warning that any move of Vietnamese guards close to the area will be punished. It already fired water cannons and used air fighters to control the area.  It says the rig will stay until August 2014 to examine whether there is any potential gas and oil to be drilled.


Why they think they’re right


The disputed area
The disputed area


China: the country said the disputed area is China’s sovereignty because it is historically so. They base their claim on two accounts: Firstly, they refer to the “nine-dash line”, which was drawn in 1940s by Chiang Kai-shek’s government and used by the communist after the civil war ended in 1949.

The line, which includes 80% of the Southeast Asia Sea, is viewed by other countries in the region as baseless and illegal. If judged by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Chinese claim is invalid.

Secondly, they said the area is within the Paracel Islands’ waters, which is now controlled by the Chinese but also claimed by the Vietnamese. Chinese Navy seized the islands in 1974 after a short but bloody attack against the South Vietnamese government.


Vietnam: The area falls well within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), just 120 nautical miles off its coast.

International law: China’s move is illegal because it is not permitted to unilaterally change the status quo of a disputed area.

More can be seen in an analysis by the Centre of Strategic and International Studies here.


What happened in anti-China protests in Vietnam?

After the confrontation between two governments, Vietnamese hold mass rallies against China which were spread nationwide. Overseas Vietnamese also went out in many other countries to protest.


Vietnamese and Filippino protested together in Manila
Vietnamese and Filippino protested together in Manila

In Vietnam, several protests turned into riots. Some protesters set on fire factories that they thought belong to Chinese (they apparently mistook Singaporeans, Koreans, and especially Taiwanese as well), and involved in violence against Chinese workers which led to several deaths in what is seen as the worst riots in a country famous for its political stability.


Why Vietnamese protesters were so angry, and irrational?

Public protests are not allowed in Vietnam, but this time, perhaps Vietnamese authorities got so pissed off by China’s action to the point that they turned a blind eye on protesters. Unfortunately, because they had never dealt with protests before, the Vietnamese government couldn’t control it well when things went bad.


protests turned riots
protests turned riots

On the other hand, anti-China sentiments in Vietnam have run high in recent years following sovereignty disputes, yet often put off by the government. It is noteworthy that the country was colonized by Chinese for 1,000 years until 10th century, and frequently had to fight against its neighbour’s invasion. The latest full-scale one happened in 1979.

When Vietnamese authorities decided it couldn’t bear the Chinese aggression alone anymore and unofficially permitted public protests, the bombs just went burst. Overall, the anti-China protests were peaceful, but then some went ugly after provocations. Irrationality is something you can expected in a mob, as German philosopher Hegel says.

Now the situation is in government’s control, after they made around 1,000 arrests of rioters. Vietnamese Prime Minister vowed to protect foreigners and investors by “all means”.

Public opinion in Vietnam strongly opposed the violence. Many public apologies have been made, one of which you can find at the end of this blog post by Jonathan London, an American scholar. Students volunteered to take care of Chinese workers who were injured in the riots.

Interestingly, the authorities said that there were some “provocateurs” who were paid to instigate protesters, sounds like something similar to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Investigations are being carried out.


Why does this matter?

Firstly, the Southeast Asia Sea is one of the most important seas in the world. I don’t exaggerate it. More than half of global commercial goods, a third of global crude oil, and over half of global LNG trade pass through the sea annually.  That is why other parties that have no sovereignty disputes such as the US, European Union, and Japan have shown concerns over China’s nine-dash line claims which make the sea a Chinese lake.

The sea also has a huge oil reserve, which can be up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillioncubic feet of natural gas.

Secondly, this case, if properly handled, can set a new norm for global politics. Previously, disputes were normally solved in favour of the strong (the most recent example is Russian invasion of Crimea) with the use (or threat) of force.

China is a much bigger country than Vietnam, and currently the biggest economy in the world. If dispute is solved by muscles, you know surely who is going to lose more (though Vietnam, which in its history defeated Genghis Khan’s Mongolian army, the French and the US, warned the Chinese that it is “a peace loving country, but don’t wake up the dragon”).


A picture paints a thousand words. Apparently, China said Vietnamese ships rammed them "171 times".
A picture paints a thousand words. Apparently, China said Vietnamese ships rammed them “171 times”.


Now Vietnam and Philippines, another claimant in the dispute, ask China to go to international courts to solve the problem. Beijing has consistently refused, in favour of dealing with each of the countries by bilateral meetings behind closed doors.

If China does agree to go to court, nevertheless, it means that justice can be done for all, no matter how big or small a country is.

Thirdly, there is indeed a risk of escalation to war between two countries, though small. The Asia-Pacific region is currently the global economic locomotive, thus any conflict there will badly affect the world economy, still fragile after the financial crisis.

How to solve this dispute and prevent possible conflicts in the region? To the world, it is simple: all involved parties go to court. It is hard to say “justice” in Chinese for those who rule in Beijing though.


China's Exclusive Economic Zone according to UN laws
China’s Exclusive Economic Zone according to UN laws



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