China Misbehaves, Taiwan Suffers: The Vietnam RiotsRecent riots in Vietnam in response to a territorial dispute between Hanoi and Beijing highlight the risks to Taiwanese who may be mistaken for Chinese
It was only a matter of time before things exploded in the region. And explode they did on Tuesday as thousands of rioters ransacked dozens of foreign-run factories in southern Vietnam in anger at the recent installation by China of an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi. Unfortunately for many Taiwanese, they fell victim to the violence.
As many as fifteen factories were set ablaze and several more were vandalized by angry mobs as protests went out of control from Tuesday to Wednesday. In many cases, the protesters attacked factories they believed were operated by Chinese but were in fact run by Taiwanese or South Koreans, according to Vietnamese media.
Territorial disputes between Vietnam and China have given rise to many diplomatic spats and occasional clashes over the decades. The trigger for the present crisis — the most serious unrest in Vietnam in recent years — occurred on May 1 when Chinese vessels towed a deep-sea oil rig close to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Although the area is administered by China, Hanoi claims it is part of its continental shelf and that it falls within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Soon after the incursion, Vietnam dispatched several vessels to disrupt China’s operations, leading to clashes with Chinese boats sent to protect the Haiyang Shiyou-981. Until things spun out of control on Tuesday, Hanoi had encouraged nationwide protests over the dispute, with as many as 20,000 protesters taking to the streets. Many of them drove around foreign factories on their motorcycles, waving the Vietnamese flag. According to the Vietnam Computer Emergency Response Team, several Vietnamese websites were targeted by Chinese hackers during that period.
The violence seen in the past two days underscores the tensions that have been building up amid growing Chinese assertiveness (which tends to manifest itself mostly during the summer). In recent years, Chinese fishing, maritime security, and navy vessels have penetrated various areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea, provoking disputes with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among others. Beijing’s extensive territorial claims in those two sea areas, and its tendency to dismiss the apprehensions of its much smaller competitors, have greatly increased the risk of accidents within the region, and with that the possibility of escalation. Though weaker, China’s opponents have not backed down, and in some cases they were emboldened by signals of U.S. support amid its so-called “rebalancing” to Asia. With its centuries-long history of fierce resistance to Chinese expansionism and defiance of great powers, Vietnam has toughened its stance in recent years despite the substantial force disparity between the two countries.
For Taiwan, which is also a claimant in many of those disputes, resentment at perceived Chinese expansionism carries the additional risk that it will be dragged into the conflict by accident, as may have been the case in Vietnam. People often have difficulty telling Taiwanese and Chinese apart, in part because of their similar languages and physical attributes. The blurred lines between the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), not to mention Beijing’s propaganda about “one China” and the accession of foreign governments to such rhetoric, also serve as a source of confusion for people who are not cognizant of the fundamental political differences that exist between the two entities and peoples. With self-restraint and discernment going out the window when angered crowds take action, it is not surprising that Taiwanese would be mistaken for Chinese and become the targets of anti-Chinese reprisals. As the state-owned Central News Agency reported, with unusual clarity I might add, on May 14, “Self-governed Taiwan is not part of the People’s Republic of China and has never been under its control, but many protesting Vietnamese failed to distinguish between Chinese and Taiwanese and attacked Taiwanese businesses.”
According to a Taiwanese businessman based in Binh Doung Province, the heartland of the Taiwanese garment and textile industry situated north of Ho Chi Minh City, a dozen Taiwanese factories have been set ablaze since Tuesday. Huang Chih-peng (黃志鵬), Taiwan’s representative to Vietnam, said that as many as 1,000 Taiwanese businesses are believed to have been affected the rioting, with several businesspeople fleeing the area. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) reported that two Taiwanese have been injured.
In addition to calling on Vietnamese authorities to ensure the safety of Taiwanese, MOFA recommended that its nationals in Vietnam put out signs outside their factories that clearly identified them as being from “Taiwan.” While perfectly sensible, the directive underscores the necessity for Taiwan (often neglected by the current administration) to distinguish itself from China. This is especially important at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise. The recent incidents prove beyond doubt that the constant blurring of the lines between Taiwan and China is self-defeating and in fact dangerous. This is a lesson that Taiwanese should keep in mind wherever they go, even in far-away Africa, where the thuggish behavior of Chinese workers brought in by PRC firms is, according to various accounts, rapidly turning the population against them. Taiwanese could one day be mistaken for Chinese nationals and physically attacked by locals who have had enough of the exploitation, economic dislocation, and environmental damage caused by Chinese companies. A similar phenomenon is reportedly in the making in Central Asia, where Chinese energy firms have been aggressively expanding their operations. As cyber attacks are now a component of belligerence between nations, Taiwanese firms and government institutions could one day be targeted by governments, groups, or individuals who believe they are retaliating against China, another sector in which Taiwanese interests could be compromised.
Some of the rising resentment against China stems from its rise and greater economic footprint, which is probably inevitable and certainly not unique to China. However, Beijing’s intransigence and outright belligerence against weaker nations — not to mention against its ethnic minorities — is of the Chinese leadership’s own making. Sadly for Taiwanese (and possibly people from Hong Kong), the inevitable backlash will threaten them as well. It is therefore in Taipei’s interest to pressure Beijing to act responsibly and agree to compromise with its neighbors. And to punish it if and when it fails to do so. Silence on the matter only fosters the illusion of complicity and ultimately puts Taiwanese lives at risk.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.