Thousands of Vietnamese set fire to foreign factories and rampaged in industrial zones in the south of the country in an angry reaction to Chinese oil drilling in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, officials said on Wednesday.
The brunt of Tuesday’s violence, one of the worst breakdowns in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the neighbors fought a brief border war in 1979, appears to have been borne by Taiwanese firms in the zones in Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces that were mistaken for Chinese-owned companies.
Some Taiwanese firms had spray-painted messages on the road and across their gates saying “We Support Vietnam” in an effort to distinguish themselves from Chinese enterprises.
The row over the South China Sea and anti-China violence in tightly-controlled Vietnam have raised fears of an escalation in tensions between the Communist neighbors.
“I fear a dark chapter in Sino-Vietnamese relations is now being written,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“And because China wants to keep that oil rig in place into August, these protests could just be the first pages.”
The United States said it was monitoring events in Vietnam closely, and urged restraint from all parties involved.
Storey said the Vietnamese government would now be under increasing pressure to respond, which could risk a military clash at sea with China that Vietnam could not win.
Dozens of ships from both countries are around the oil rig, and the two sides have accused each other of intentional collisions, increasing the risk of open confrontation.
Anti-China sentiment was also on the rise in Manila, as the Philippine government accused Beijing of reclaiming land on a reef in disputed islands in another part of sea, apparently to build an airstrip.