The fight over the tiny spits of land in the South China Sea has been simmering below the surface for months, but it seems it has finally boiled over this week.
Protests over Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam began on Tuesday and have since taken a deadly turn. Reports indicate that up to 21 people have been killed so far and dozens more have been injured in the demonstrations, which have primarily targeted Chinese and Taiwanese factories and workers. The protests began in response to China setting up an oil rig surrounded by a flotilla of coast guard ships on May 1 in the disputed Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Video via YouTube/tu nguyen
Thousands of Vietnamese protesters attacked as many as 200 foreign-owned factories on Tuesday and Wednesday — looting, ransacking, and setting fire to buildings and equipment. Some estimates of the number of participants were as high as 20,000, making these riots the biggest and most violent Vietnam has experienced in years.
Protests began peacefully in Ho Chi Min city, but quickly turned violent and deadly as they spread elsewhere throughout the country.
China Airlines, Taiwan’s largest airline, sent two charter flights to Vietnam today to handle the hundreds of Taiwanese nationals who are fleeing the country. The airline also announced it would be adding additional seats on planes to accommodate the influx of passengers. Amid the chaos, hundreds of other Chinese and Taiwanese nationals have been scrambling over the borders to Cambodia.
In response to China's drilling near the disputed islands, Vietnam sent a flotilla of their own last week to disrupt Chinese activities. The boats have clashed with each other, and China is maintaining that they have full ownership over the Paracel Islands — also known as Xisha in Chinese — and condemned Vietnam’s attempts at disrupting Chinese activity.
“The Xisha Islands are China's inherent territory. There exists no dispute,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement last week. “Vietnam's disruptions of the Chinese company's normal activities have seriously violated China's sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”
The US State Department condemned China’s activity towards the disputed islands as “provocative” in a statement on May 7.
“This unilateral action appears 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,” the statement said.
The protests in Vietnam reflect growing anger in the region from China’s neighbors over what many see as an overt land grab that China has been carrying out in the South China Sea in recent years. In addition to the Paracel Islands that are claimed by Vietnam, China has its eyes on the strategically located and resource-rich Spratly Islands that are claimed by the Philippines.
Specifically, China seems to be eyeing a tiny coral atoll called the Johnson South Reef that is 700 miles off its coast. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Wednesday that it had lodged a protest to China over a month ago about Chinese plans to reclaim the land. China had rejected the complaint, but the Philippines insist that China is planning the construction of outposts on the islands, and has even published photographs that it claims are of China building structures on the Johnson South Reef.
Normally, building a beach shack on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would not be cause for panic, but both the Spratly and Paracel Islands hold strategic value that no one is keen on giving up. The Spratley Islands are located in the world’s best fishing location and in strategic shipping lanes, and most importantly, they are on top of vast oil and natural gas reserves.
The Philippines is speculating that China is preparing to take over the Johnson South Reef to build an airstrip on it, which would give China greater access to the nearby oil and gas fields. Additionally, it would provide China with a strategic military base closer to Vietnam and the surrounding countries.
Despite warnings from the US and deadly protests in Vietnam, China shows no sign of giving up on its attempts to reclaim these islands. Much to the chagrin of its neighbors, there doesn’t appear to be anything anyone can do about it.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928