Vietnamese Stage Mass Anti-China Protests Amid Oil Rig Tensions

In one of the largest anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam, thousands of people took to the streets at the weekend to protest against Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in contested South China Sea waters, as a high-level Southeast Asian meeting voiced "serious concerns" over the tense territorial standoff.

About 1,000 people marched Sunday in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City, protesting outside the Chinese consulate, while hundreds gathered in front of the Chinese embassy in the capital Hanoi calling on Beijing to withdraw the giant rig positioned near the disputed Paracel Islands.

There were also similar protests in the cities of Danang and Hue against the May 1 rig deployment, which saw  patrol vessels from the two countries converging in the disputed area, resulting in collisions and escalation of tensions.

In a clear reflection of Hanoi's anger over Beijing's move, state media extensively reported the noisy anti-Chinese protests which police made no move to break up.

The authorities also did not harass, beat, or detain reporters covering the event, unlike in previous such gatherings.

Vietnam's authoritarian leaders usually keep a very tight grip on public gatherings for fear they could snowball into protests against the Communist leadership.

The state run Tuoi Tre newspaper reported that "tens of thousands" of Vietnamese participated in the anti-Chinese protests, including "elders, veterans, students, office workers, and even children" and that they sang national anthem and revolutionary songs.

'Sovereignty is sacred'
It identified some of the banners and placards carried by the protesters as reading “Sovereignty is sacred and inviolable,” "China must adhere to international law,” "China, immediately remove the oil rig from Vietnam’s territorial waters," "Young Vietnamese people are willing to sacrifice for national defense," “Stand by the State to protect national sovereignty," and "Hoang Sa [Paracels] and Truong Sa [Spratlys] are Vietnam’s flesh."

"This is the largest anti-Chinese demonstration I have ever seen in Hanoi," war veteran Dang Quang Thang, 74, told Agence France-Presse.

"Our patience has limits. We are here to express the will of the Vietnamese people to defend our territory at all costs. We are ready to die to protect our nation," he said.

Smaller anti-Chinese protests were also held on Saturday.

The weekend demonstrations were the largest since 2011, when a Chinese vessel cut seismic survey cables leading to a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. Hanoi backed the protests initially but dispersed them later when it became apparent that they were becoming a venue to air grievances against the government.

China dispatches fighter jets

On Sunday, Colonel Ngo Ngoc Thu, Chief of Staff of Vietnam's Coast Guard, told the Tuoi Tre newspaper that China has dispatched fighter jets to join a group of vessels tasked with guarding the oil rig. It said three Chinese naval vessels were among ships blocking Vietnamese coast guard craft from going to the rig area.

The Vietnamese coast guard last week released video of Chinese vessels ramming and firing water cannons at Vietnamese ships.

"On Saturday and Sunday mornings, the Vietnamese Coast Guard discovered two groups of Chinese military aircraft flying above Vietnamese ships, which have been trying to prevent the oil rig from illicitly drilling in Vietnamese waters, at a height of 800 to 1000 meters [2,624 to 3,280 feet], Thu said.

'Serious violation'

Speaking to fellow leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a summit in Myanmar on Sunday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said his country had acted with "utmost restraint" over the rig incident and called on the grouping to protest what he termed China's "serious violation" in the sea.

The group's foreign ministers voiced "serious concerns over the on-going developments" in a joint statement released on the eve of the summit on Saturday but did not criticize Beijing, which exerts vast political and economic influence in the region.

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, who is Vietnamese, told Reuters news agency that the incident added urgency to concluding talks between ASEAN and China on agreeing to a code of conduct in the resource-rich South China Sea to ease tensions.

But he pointedly said China's efforts to conclude the talks have fallen short of ASEAN's. Despite holding three rounds of talks since last year, the discussions had yet to focus on "substantive issues," he said.

Beijing prefers to negotiate directly with its smaller, weaker neighbors on a bilateral basis on overlapping territorial claims.

Aside from Vietnam and China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, which has asked a U.N. tribunal to rule on China's claims over most of the sea, said it had detained a Chinese fishing boat in disputed territory last week.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Saturday called on fellow Southeast Asian leaders to face up to the threat posed by China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, stressing that it affected regional "security".

Reported by RFA's Vietnamese and Myanmar Services. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.