Vietnam demonstrators in Hanoi rally against China’s territorial claims in South China Sea. Photograph: Luong Thai Linh/EPA
Tensions rise after Beijing declares city, which Vietnam lays claim to, its newest municipality
The banners, T-shirts and handwritten posters said it all. “China! Hands off Vietnam!” read one. “Shame on you, bastard neighbour,” said another. “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 selling stereos and Versace, they charged towards the Chinese embassy, where they hoped to make a stand against what they call “China’s constant aggression”.
“I hate China!” said one fortysomething protester, his voice hoarse from shouting slogans. “Germany invaded Poland during the second world war, 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.”
From government offices to the streets of Vietnam, 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 the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
But 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 own sovereign waters.
It also declared Sansha City – on tiny Yongxing in the Paracel islands, which Vietnam lays claim to – China’s newest municipality. The anti-China protest was the third of its kind in Hanoi in one 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. “China’s territorial claims are now bigger than China itself.”
Hanoi, 125 miles from the Chinese border, knows it must play a delicate game. Trade between the two countries reached an estimated $40bn 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 the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, highlighting America’s interest in its former foe. Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh bay, a US naval base during the Vietnam war, sparked particular curiosity over the US’s intentions to “protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea” as it moves 60% of its naval ships to the Pacific by 2020.