Up to 300 people shouting “Down with China” marched to the Chinese embassy in Vietnam yesterday to protest against what they see as Chinese violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea.
Tension between Vietnam and China has been on the rise since last month when Hanoi said Chinese patrol boats harassed a Vietnamese oil-exploration ship conducting a seismic survey 120km off Vietnam’s south-central coast.
The two countries, which fought a brief but intense war on their land border in 1979, have exchanged accusations and re-staked long-standing claims of sovereignty over maritime territory that covers important shipping routes and is thought to hold large, untapped oil and gas reserves.
Public protests are rare in Vietnam, but as well as the procession of banner-waving people in the capital, images posted online showed about 1,000 people marching in what appeared to be a similar protest in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial hub.
There had been calls online and via text message for people in the southern city to demonstrate at the Chinese consulate.
The demonstrators in Hanoi sang patriotic songs and chanted slogans including “The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam,” referring to two largely uninhabited archipelagos claimed by both countries.
Two people carried a Chinese flag emblazoned with a pirate’s skull and crossbones.
The protests were the first of their kind since December 2007 when widespread anger about China’s growing assertiveness over its claims to the Paracels and Spratlys drew hundreds of people out in Hanoi.
Maritime disputes are a sensitive topic for the Vietnamese government, which tries to strike a balance between appeasing a populace that is deeply suspicious of China and keeping relations with its giant neighbor from souring.
Hanoi police watched the peaceful protest and after a while led the demonstrators away from a park in front of the Chinese embassy.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim territories in the South China Sea, but China’s claim is by far the largest, forming a vast U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers.
The latest tension comes as defense ministers from around the region met in Singapore for an annual security dialogue.
Chinese Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie (梁光烈) told his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh at the conference on Saturday that their countries should resolve their disputes peacefully.
Vietnam had said it would use its navy to enforce its territorial integrity.
Speaking at the conference yesterday, Liang said that China has been working through ASEAN to negotiate sea disputes in the region.
“China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea,’’ he said. “At present, the general situation in the South China Sea remains stable.’’