In Vietnam, riots and attacks on foreign-owned plants, ostensibly in response to China’s installation of a drilling rig in waters of the South China Sea that both countries claim, are perplexing.
Sparring between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces around the rig was followed by the absence of other Asian nations’ support for Vietnam’s position. Violent crowds then damaged or destroyed scores of factories in southern Vietnam, most of them owned by Taiwanese or South Korean companies, but some owned by Chinese firms.
China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in 1979. Much of Vietnam’s history, apart from the French colonial period and its war with the United States, has been an effort to keep from being dominated by its huge neighbor.
Even so, the factory attacks raise hard questions. One is whether the destruction, which led to detention of more than 400 Vietnamese citizens, was inspired by the government or by groups protesting the plight of workers (independent unions are banned in Vietnam). Another is whether the damage will discourage investment in Vietnam.
Vietnam remains a totalitarian, Communist-run state where nothing much happens without government prompting. Yet Vietnam’s government has an opposition; it may have used the occasion of disorder, whatever its source, to show its strength and discontent.
The United States has called for dialogue between China and Vietnam on the territorial dispute. It says the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea should prevail in the quarrel. Yet the United States has not ratified that treaty, even after 20 years.
The complexity of this Southeast Asian problem, including its internal aspects, suggests it is a matter best left to the parties to resolve.