Two Chinese passenger ships arrived at a Vietnamese port yesterday to evacuate Chinese workers following deadly rioting last week, officials said, a dramatic maneuver from Beijing that intensifies pressure on Hanoi as the two countries jostle over disputed territory in the South China Sea, near the contested Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China.
The boats with a capacity to carry 1,000 passengers each arrived at Vung Ang port early yesterday morning, but did not immediately dock, said Thai Tran Linh, a government official in Ha Tinh. He said officials were still examining the paperwork of the ships, which left China’s Hainan Island on Sunday last week.
Vung Ang port is part of a large, under-construction Taiwanese steel mill complex 250km south of Hanoi that was overrun by an anti-China mob last week. Two Chinese workers were killed and 140 injured in the attack, which also left parts of the facility on fire. Linh said it employed about 3,000 Chinese workers.
There has been no violence or protests since Thursday and Chinese have been able to leave the country independently with no impediments since then.
The nationwide unrest, the worst to hit in Vietnam years, followed Beijing’s deployment of a large oil rig in a patch of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. Both nations have sent ships to the waters that are now locked in a tense standoff, raising fears of conflict.
While saying that countries are obligated to help their citizens, Johnathan London, a Vietnam expert at Hong Kong’s City University, said sending ships “broadcasts to the world a sense that China is a victim, creates an image of a destabilized Vietnam [and] sends ominous signals and veiled threats of punitive action.”
“This maneuver might be perceived as indicating that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping (習近平) is more interested in deepening, rather than alleviating, the prevailing sense of crisis, which if true, does not bode well for those hoping for de-escalation and newly-imaginative attempts at conflict resolution,” he wrote in an e-mail.
About 400 other factories around the country were damaged or destroyed in mob violence, most in industrial parks close to Ho Chi Minh City. Many factories were not Chinese-run, but Taiwanese or from elsewhere in Asia, apparently targeted mistakenly or by gangs intent on looting.
Vietnam’s government, furious at China’s positioning of the rig, initially allowed street protests, which are rare in the authoritarian country. However since the rioting began, they have cracked down, aware that the violence threatens the country’s reputation as a safe and cheap destination for foreign manufacturers to establish factories.