It was a little more than two weeks ago when Chinese state-owned corporation CNOOC moved an oil rig into contested waters off the Vietnamese coast for “exploratory work” at the behest of Beijing. Not surprisingly, Hanoi was less than receptive to the oil rig’s new home, which it pointed out was located within Vietnam’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

A wave of anti-China sentiment spread across the country that saw riots take place in Vietnam’s industrial parks outside the former city of Saigon and Ha Tinh province, which left two Chinese workers dead and hundreds wounded. Other firsthand and eyewitness accounts place those killed between 13 and 21, and mostly Chinese. In a country and with a government that prohibits such outright disobedience, Hanoi was curiously quiet on the matter, at least at first.

It must first be said that the violence that had seized Vietnam was soon extinguished, if only to preserve investor confidence in Vietnam. Although rioters largely targeted Chinese-owned firms, foreign firms such as those from Taiwan and Singapore were also caught in the crossfire, forcing in particular Taiwanese workers to join Chinese residents in their exodus from Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government has since stated that it will investigate the riots and provide relief to damaged businesses. However, matters remain complicated and volatile given that the oil rig in question remains in place and will unlikely go anywhere, at least until August when exploratory work is expected to be completed.

For China, given the temporary presence of the oil rig, the move might have been nothing more than a probe to gauge the reaction of Vietnam and the international community. Emboldened perhaps by Russia’s effortless annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Beijing sought to (and quite literally) test the waters with its claim over the South China Sea.

There is certainly something to be said about the recent US$400 billion gas deal signed by China and Russia, or the earlier announcement of joint naval drills between the two countries. What appears to be an emerging alliance, or at the very least a strategic partnership, between China and Russia could serve to accelerate the divide between East and West. Although the two countries remain distinct with different agendas, they are at least rather unified in their opposition against the United States. By signing the gas deal, Russia may have reduced the sting from economic sanctions levied against it, while China secured a source of energy for the immediate future.

Yet, while all eyes are on the oil rig and future of Sino–Vietnamese relations, and the road ahead for China, for Vietnamese citizens at least, their eyes will be on their government.

It must have seemed for a brief moment that Hanoi and its citizens were on the same page, a rare moment of unity, when citizens marched freely and openly against China; but all of this quickly came to an end when demonstrations turned violent.

It was of course expected that Hanoi would quash the violence, but so too have peaceful marches been suppressed in a return to the status quo. It is not hard to understand why the government has been wary of public protests, even if they are targeted at China. To give the public an opportunity to vent their anger, regardless of intent, would be to open Pandora’s Box.

The Vietnamese government has been accused of corruption, economic mismanagement, to say nothing of one-party rule at the hands of the Communist Party. Vietnamese activists who have spoken out against the government have been punished in one form or another. That the regime in Hanoi has survived this long is a testament to its ability to neutralize popular dissent before it can firmly take root.

It may be that today Vietnamese citizens will protest against China, but if given the opportunity, how long will it take before they march against Hanoi’s inability to stand up against Beijing and defend Vietnam’s interests? How long will it take before criticisms against Hanoi’s response to the oil rig spiral into criticisms of the government itself?

In suppressing anti-China protests, the government has prevented the potential for further riots and bloodshed. But in suppressing these protests, the government has walked itself dangerously into a corner from which it may not be able to emerge unscathed, if at all.

Public outrage is for the moment solely set against China, but if Hanoi is not careful, it may find itself in the crosshairs of the people’s fury. If allowed to be seen as ineffectual in response to the oil rig, while at the same time suppressing the people’s anger at China, Hanoi may in turn be seen as an agent of China’s interests rather than the interests of Vietnam.

Generously speaking, although there are elements within the Communist Party of Vietnam who desire closer relations with China, the oil rig has undoubtedly complicated further attempts at boosting Sino–Vietnamese relations. Anti-China sentiment in the CPV may be no different than that of its citizens, but a desire to preserve its authority in Vietnam has forced the government to condemn China in public and suppress anti-China protests at home.

Time will tell if the Vietnamese government can walk this tightrope for long, but it is clear that the longer this oil rig situation continues, the greater the likelihood the government’s legitimacy is questioned by Vietnamese citizens. If time should pass and the oil rig continues to remain in place, it would be a nightmare scenario for Hanoi and the CPV.

It would be a great irony if China would be responsible for catalyzing the democratization of, or at least, political reform in Vietnam. At stake in this oil rig confrontation are not only China’s greater ambitions in the South China Sea and the international community’s (and specifically the United States’) ability to confront China, but the legitimacy and continued relevance of the CPV in Vietnam.

Political change in Vietnam must come from within and it must come at the hands of its people, but it may be that a gentle nudge from the outside is what is required to set the people down the path of change. If so, the CPV’s days may be numbered if they cannot adequately respond to China’s gambit.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.

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