Skip to main content

How an oil rig sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China evacuates thousands of nationals from Vietnam amid territorial dispute
  • Protests erupted after China's state oil company sent a rig to disputed territory
  • Vietnam says the rig site is on its continental shelf and within its Exclusive Economic Zone
  • China says the rig will be there until mid-August, has sent ships to guard the site

Hong Kong (CNN) -- When China's state-owned oil company dispatched an oil rig to a contested area of the South China Sea it flicked a match on a long-smoldering dispute with its communist neighbor Vietnam.

Analysts say Beijing must have known the move would elicit some reaction, but it clearly didn't predict having to evacuate thousands of Chinese nationals desperate to put some distance between them and violent Vietnamese protests.

"The whole episode seems to reek of miscalculation, perhaps by both sides, but it demonstrates how volatile how this region can be," said Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Asia (IISS).

At issue is the positioning of an oil rig in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam. Vietnam claims the rig's presence is "illegal" while China says it has every right to drill, and has castigated the Vietnamese government for failing to ensure the safety of its nationals.

To understand the issue, it's vital to look at the exact position of the rig.

Where is the rig?

In early May, Beijing announced the HD-981 rig would be parked at sea for exploratory work until mid-August. Owned by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the rig is anchored in Lot 143, about 120 nautical miles east of Vietnam's Ly Son Island and 180 nautical miles from China's Hainan Island, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Location of HD-981  Location of HD-981
Location of HD-981Location of HD-981

Analysis co-authored by CSIS experts said China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to be basing its right to be there on the assumption that one of the Paracel Islands, which it claims as its own, is 17 miles north, allowing it to claim its own continental shelf in the region.

China calls the contested Paracel Islands the Xisha Islands, while in Vietnam they're known as the Hoang Sa Islands.

Vietnam says the rig site is clearly on its continental shelf, and moreover is in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Hanoi has demanded that China remove the offending rig, escort vessels from the region and hold talks to settle the issue.

The Chinese rig was escorted to the region by naval vessels and fighter jets, drawing Vietnamese boats to the area and raising tensions at sea. The Vietnamese have accused Chinese vessels of ramming and blasting its boats with water cannon. The Chinese say any conflict was provoked by Vietnamese harassment.

Clashes on land

Miles away from the standoff at sea, violent protests have erupted at Chinese and Taiwanese owned or operated factories, mainly in the provinces of Ha Tinh and Binh Duoung.

China's crushing dissent
Anti-China riots in Vietnam

Protesters smashed down gates and set fire to businesses, attacking anything deemed to be of Chinese origin, including its nationals.

On Sunday, China chartered flights to evacuate 290 citizens, including 100 injured in the most recent violence.

Video aired by state broadcaster CCTV showed some limping or being carried down the stairs of a medical flight arriving in the city of Chengdu, many with limbs bandaged. Two Chinese nationals were killed in earlier clashes, authorities said.

Around 7,000 Chinese nationals had boarded ships or were due to do so this week, state news agency Xinhua reported. An outraged opinion piece published on the same site said the protests by "irrational rioters" would in no way strengthen Hanoi's "groundless claim over Chinese territory and surrounding waters in the South China Sea."

Who is right?

While many commentators say Vietnam has every right to feel appalled over the positioning of the Chinese rig, at least one analyst says the issue not as clear cut as some suggest.

"Geographical proximity alone is not an unequivocal basis for claiming sovereignty or sovereign rights," writes Sam Bateman in the Eurasia Review.

Bateman, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University, says Vietnam's claim to the Paracel Islands is "seriously weakened" by North Vietnam's recognition of China's sovereignty over the Paracels and lack of protest between 1958 and 1975.

In 1974, the two countries fought the Battle of the Paracel Islands, which ended in a Chinese victory and complete control over the land and surrounding waters.

After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Vietnam's leaders publicly renewed the country's claim to the islands but the issue remains unresolved. In January this year, activists shouted anti-China slogans and laid flowers for more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers killed in the conflict, 40 years on.

What is motivating China?

On the surface, oil would seem to be the reason China has waded into the disputed area but analysts say politics are clearly at play.

"This kind of a move by putting an oil rig in this sort of place, you could say it's a carte blanche to allow China to enhance its naval operations in the region and to project its power further out into the South China Sea," Neill said.

It's not the first time China has stepped on regional sensitivities by making high profile and deliberate incursions into contested tracts. There have been tense encounters between Japan and China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in recent years, and China has locked horns with the Philippines over competing claims to the Scarborough Shoal.

In a statement released May 7, the U.S. State Department characterized China's latest move as a "part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region."

What's the response from China?

The ferocity of the Vietnamese protests appears to have taken China by surprise and it's clearly expressed its dissatisfaction with Vietnam's handling of the unrest.

On May 18, China announced it was suspending some of its plans for bilateral exchanges with the country. It's warned its citizens that Vietnam is not safe for travel, while the Global Times reported many Chinese travel agencies had suspended tours to Vietnam.

China has also warned of other unspecified punishment, hinting that it will use its economic leverage. Trade between China and Vietnam reached more than 50 billion dollars in 2013 according to Chinese state media and Vietnam depends heavily on foreign investment.

Commentary carried by China's state-run Xinhua news agency suggested: "It is advisable for the Vietnamese government to think of the bigger picture and not to get stuck in extreme nationalism so as to avoid escalation of violence and complication of the situation in the South China Sea.

"By immediately stopping the violence and any further provocations, Vietnam can work with China to tap the full potential of their economic cooperation in such areas as financial services and industry transfer."

How has Vietnam responded?

While maintaining its demands for China to leave the contested area, the Vietnamese government says it's taken steps to dampen further protests. It has characterized the protests as "spontaneous acts" by individuals who are exploiting the situation to "cause social disorder."

Hundreds of people have been arrested and the government has reassured foreign investors that it attaches a "special importance" to ensuring their safety.

How is this likely to end?

Alexander Neill from IISS predicts relations between the two will be strained for some time, but trade ties between the countries are likely to offer a way forward.

"I think there's a common misperception that the party-to-party relationship, the two communist parties in China and Vietnam, have this deep and understanding relationship. I don't think that's necessarily true. I think to a large extent this relationship is cosmetic," he said.

"The real business of the relationship is in trade so that might be an area where there could be a way out, or channels of communication could speak more than political acrimony.

"The Vietnamese authorities can't afford to lose very significant chunks of investment into their economy."

Read more: Chinese ships reach Vietnam to evacuate citizens

Read more: Protesters torch factories in southern Vietnam as China protests escalate

Read more: China, Vietnam, Philippines collide

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general has confessed to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in President Xi Jinping's war on corruption.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
A group in China escapes from a stuck elevator thanks to one man and his trusty hammer. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Facebook's founder says he taught himself Mandarin and tested his skills with students in China.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
China launched an experimental spacecraft that is scheduled to orbit the moon before returning to Earth.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: This was a truly high-tech scam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
The rationale behind Confucius Institutes -- an international chain of academic centers run by an arm of the Chinese government -- is understandable.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 0511 GMT (1311 HKT)
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
ADVERTISEMENT