Vietnam Tries Damage Control After Deadly Anti-Chinese Riots

Riot police stand guard on a street outside a factory building in Bình Dương, Vietnam, on May 14 Photograph by VNExpress/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with deadly anti-Chinese pogroms throughout the country, the Vietnamese government has come up with a novel crisis-management tactic: sending a text message. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung texted Vietnamese cellular subscribers yesterday and today, calling on citizens “to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law.” Without referring directly to the rioters targeting people guilty of being Chinese (or at least appearing to be Chinese), the prime minister did remind Vietnamese that indiscriminate attacks on people based on ethnicity isn’t such a good idea. Patriotic Vietnamese shouldn’t allow “bad elements” to “harm the interests and images of the country,” he wrote.

Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but that harm has already happened. Two people are now confirmed dead from riots triggered by anger over a Chinese company drilling for oil in waters claimed by the Vietnamese. China’s People’s Daily-controlled tabloid, the Global Times, says the riots will cost Vietnam dearly: “The rising turmoil in Vietnam has jeopardized the interests of foreign investors. Vietnam is probably no longer a rich land for investment and business, but a pariah in the eyes of these investors, especially East Asian investors.”

Difficult as it may be to agree with China’s notoriously nationalistic newspaper, there’s some truth behind the hyperbole used by the Global Times. Taiwan’s Economic Affairs Ministry today said rioters had set fire to more than 100 Taiwanese factories in Vietnam, and Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo said the government would demand that Vietnam compensate Taiwanese business owners and individuals, the Central News Agency reports. The Taipei Times today published a story about the unrest, running the headline “Taiwanese fleeing Vietnam recount terror during riots.”

Until now, one of Vietnam’s biggest advantages was its political stability (in the years since the country’s reunification), as opposed to neighbors such as Thailand and the Philippines with their histories of coups and unrest. Now Vietnam is suddenly a dangerous place for any foreign investor with a name that is Chinese or appears Chinese.

While Vietnam has the most to lose, the situation isn’t acceptable for the government in Beijing, either. The dispute is just adding to China’s problems in the region, where the country has created openings for the U.S. and Japan to build on worries about what the Chinese intend. “People are starting to see China as an enemy, and that’s a massive, massive failure of diplomacy from Beijing,” says Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Center and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. “It’s one of the biggest diplomatic screw-ups of modern times for a hugely important regional and global player to have alienated so many of its neighbors so quickly.”

Since there’s reason for both sides to find a face-saving solution, what are the options? According to Brown’s colleague, Ben Saul of the University of Sydney’s Center for International Law, they could agree to submit the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Tribunal in Hamburg. Or they could agree to go to the International Court of Justice, or to ad hoc arbitration.

Getting China to agree to allow judges or arbitrators to decide is no small task. The Philippines has tried to go to court, submitting a challenge at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague regarding a territorial dispute, but China has taken a hard line, saying it doesn’t recognize the court’s authority in the dispute. After the events of the past few days, the Chinese government isn’t likely to be in a forgiving mood toward Vietnam, either. But the Vietnamese need a new strategy. Maybe Nguyen Tan Dung should send the leaders in Beijing a text message.

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