Why Territorial Disputes Over The South China Sea Are Causing Violent Protests In Vietnam

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic. 

In early May 2014, at least 15 Chinese factories were set fire and hundreds of workers attack amid heated anti-China protests in Vietnam. Here’s what you should know about the conflict.

As we’ve explained previously, territorial claims over the South China Sea and its wealth of resources have caused tension between a number of nations, including Vietnam and China.

Protests and violent attacks erupted in Vietnam as a response to this dispute, which was heightened when China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into waters claimed by both countries.

Contested waters

The waters and oil in question are those west of the disputed Paracel Islands, which Vietnam and Malaysia made a joint submission to the CLCS (Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf) for in May of 2009. But the submission has yet to be considered.


China contests that it held indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, claims which Vietnam says have no legal, historical, or factual basis.

Escalating protests

Neither country appears willing to back down: in spite of violent protests in southern Vietnam’s industrial parks and the streets of Binh Duong province, China has vowed to continue drilling, and Vietnamese nationalist sentiment runs high over the issue.

Over 3,000 Chinese workers have been extracted from Vietnam by Chinese vessels due to the violent backlash, 16 of which are critically injured, and another 16 said to have been killed in riots, though death tolls are still unknown.

Taiwanese workers have been accidentally targeted and subsequently extracted as well, which is especially dangerous considering 40,000 Taiwanese live in Vietnam, and 4,000 Taiwanese companies worth $30 billion employ 1 million Vietnamese workers.

Hundreds of protesters have been arrested, CNN says, with the Vietnamese government doing its best to calm the unrest by beefing up security.

Ships face off

Vietnam has demanded that China back away from the area around the oil rig, accusing the nation of aggressively sending many ships out to sea – around 119, including a number of warships, which an official at the Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Department said rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese vessels.

China has accused Vietnamese ships of similar aggressive attacks. Gen. Fang Fenghui stated that China’s attitude was firm regarding the territory, and that though (in their opinion) they do not “make trouble,” they aren’t afraid of it either.

What could happen?

The United States is not taking sides, but urges that the matter be resolved through diplomacy.

Despite neutrality, the State Department released a statement claiming that the move by China appeared to be “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.”

This is the worst clash between the two countries in over three decades.

The current tension and resulting mass exodus of Chinese businesspeople and their families is not good news for Vietnam, especially as China is also Vietnam’s biggest trade partner.

Jennifer Markert