HANOI — 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.
A police official in Binh Duong province, speaking by telephone, said about 200 people had been arrested.
“We are working on other areas in the province … We haven’t seen any injuries,” the official said.
Photographs posted on social media sites and blogs, purportedly of the aftermath of the violence, showed blackened shipping containers, smashed windows and several burnt out vehicles that had been overturned.
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.”
Tran Van Nam, vice chairman of the Binh Duong People’s Committee, said around 6,000 workers initially held peaceful protests on Tuesday, but order broke down when numbers swelled to about 20,000. Gates were smashed and rioters set 15 factories on fire, he said.
“This caused billions of dong (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in damages and thousands of workers will have lost their jobs,” Nam said by telephone.
“We urge everyone to stay calm, exercise restraint and have faith in the leadership of the Party and State.”
‘Everyone Is Terrified’
F.Y. Hong, president of Taiwan’s Formosa Industries Corp, one of the firms to be attacked, said about 300 rioters looted televisions, computers and personal belongings of workers.
“Due to the limited number of police, they couldn’t stop the looters. The situation was like in a country where there were no authorities to protect its people,” Hong said.
Malaysian-listed furniture manufacturer Latitude Tree Holdings Bhd said its property was ransacked, forcing factory workers to down tools. It did not know when operations at the plant could resume.
“Everyone is terrified,” said Serena Liu, chairwoman of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. “Some people tried to drive out of Binh Duong, but looters had put up road blocks.”
A Singapore foreign ministry spokesman said the premises of several foreign firms were broken into and set on fire in two Vietnam-Singapore joint venture industrial parks in Binh Duong.
The United States said it was monitoring events in Vietnam closely, and urged restraint from all parties involved. Taiwan’s foreign ministry was in talks with Vietnamese authorities to ensure the safety of its citizens.
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.
Vietnam’s former colonial master France urged “utmost restraint” from all sides to defuse territorial tensions.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that China was seriously concerned about the violence and had summoned Vietnam’s ambassador to protest.
China has “demanded the Vietnamese side make efforts to adopt effective measures to resolutely support eliminating illegal criminal acts and protect the safety of Chinese citizens and institutions”, Hua told reporters.
Hong Kong-listed sports shoe maker Yue Yuen, which supplies footwear to Adidas, Nike and other international brands, said it had suspended production in Vietnam because of the protests, but there was no damage to its facilities and its workers were safe.
A spokesman for global exporter Li & Fung, which supplies retailers like Kohl’s Corp and Wal-Mart Stores Inc with clothing, toys and other products, said some of its suppliers in Vietnam had halted production on Wednesday as a precautionary measure. He gave no further details.
More Than 20 Dead
More than 20 people were killed and rioters attacked Vietnam’s biggest steel plant overnight as violent anti-China protests spread to the center of the country a day after arson and looting in the south, a doctor and newspapers said on Thursday.
A doctor at a hospital in central Ha Tinh province said five Vietnamese workers and 16 other people described as Chinese were killed in the rioting, one of the worst breakdowns in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the neighbors fought a brief border war in 1979.
“There were about a hundred people sent to the hospital last night. Many were Chinese. More are being sent to the hospital this morning,” the doctor at Ha Tinh General Hospital told Reuters by phone.
Hundreds of Chinese had fled Vietnam, either by air or by crossing into neighboring Cambodia, reports said.
Taiwanese media said rioters attacked a huge steel plant in Ha Tinh province owned by Formosa Plastics Group, Taiwan’s biggest investor in Vietnam. When completed in 2020, it will be Southeast Asia’s largest steel plant and will include a seaport and a 2,150 MW power plant. Local media in Vietnam has said the complex could cost about $20 billion.
In Binh Duong alone, police said 460 companies in the province had reported some damage to their plants, local media reported.
“More than 40 policemen were injured while on duty, mainly by bricks and stones thrown by extremists,” the state-run Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper said.
About 600 people were arrested for looting and inciting the crowd, the newspaper quoted Vo Thanh Duc, the police chief of Binh Duong province, as saying.
The United States has called on both sides for restraint.
Such disputes “need to be resolved through dialogue, not through intimidation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told a regular briefing. “We again urge dialogue in their resolution.”
The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring events in Vietnam closely, and urged restraint from all parties, while adding: “We support the right of individuals to assemble peacefully to protest.”
The current crisis erupted within days of a week-long visit to Asia by President Barack Obama in late April in which he pledged that Washington would live up to its obligation to defend its allies in the region.