The banners, T-shirts and handwritten posters said it all.
“China! Hands off Vietnam!” one read.
“Shame on you, bastard neighbor,” another said.
“Stop escalating, invading the East Sea of Vietnam,” a third declared.
As the protesters weaved their way through the crowded streets of Hanoi, past the peeling colonial villas and upmarket shops, they charged toward the Chinese embassy, where they hoped to make a stand against what they call “China’s constant aggression.”
“I hate China,” one forty-something protester said, his voice hoarse from shouting slogans. “Germany invaded Poland during World War II, now China wants to do the same to Vietnam. History may repeat itself if the international community is not made aware of China’s bullying.”
Tensions between Beijing and Hanoi have mounted in recent weeks over what China calls the South China Sea and Vietnam the East Sea, an area where vast deposits of oil and gas, important international shipping routes and fishing rights are of interest not just to Beijing and Hanoi, but also to Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
However, last month’s protesters had only China on their mind. After detaining a group of Vietnamese fishermen near disputed islands this year, Beijing announced that the state-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation was seeking bids for oil exploration in what Vietnam deems its sovereign waters.
It also declared Sansha City — on tiny Yongxing Island (永興島), also known as Woody Island, in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which Taiwan and Vietnam also claim — China’s newest municipality.
The anti-China protest was the third of its kind in Hanoi in a month.
“The territorial ambition of China is a common threat — not only for the Philippines or Vietnam, but for countries all over the world,” said leading economist Le Dang Doanh, a former government adviser who recently signed an open letter calling for China to abandon its “absurd maritime claims” in the region.
Hanoi, 201km from the Chinese border, knows it must play a delicate game. Trade between the two countries reached an estimated US$40 billion last year and analysts say that ties between the authoritarian, one-party states are considerably closer than either government would like to admit.
The seeming standoff has pushed the US into the game, with recent visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay, a US naval base during the Vietnam War, sparked curiosity over the US’ intentions to “protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea” as it moves 60 percent of its naval ships to the Pacific by 2020.
Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian defense academy, said Vietnam was likely to maintain its sovereignty by co-operating — but not aligning itself — with the US, but warned the situation in the South China Sea could worsen before it improved.
“Most likely, an incident will occur from a misadventure of two opposite boats trying to be in the same place at the same time,” he said. “At the moment, there’s enough control [on both sides], but the analysis is that a lot of China’s agencies are acting independently and the central government is having a hard time asserting authority ... the problem is that [neither country’s] crisis management techniques are very good.”