TIME Vietnam

China Removes Contentious Oil Rig From Waters Claimed by Vietnam

Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea
A Chinese coast-guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014. Reuters

But as its deployment led to fierce anti-Chinese rioting across Vietnam, don’t except Hanoi and Beijing to rekindle their once fraternal ties anytime soon

The rig is finally gone, but unlikely to be long forgotten.

On Tuesday, the state-backed China Oilfield Services Limited said the billion-dollar platform, which had been drilling in the heart of highly contested waters claimed by Vietnam, had “precisely extracted the related geological data as planned” and was being redeployed to sea blocks off China’s Hainan Island.

The Vietnamese coast guard confirmed the platform was being towed out of the disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam but occupied by the Chinese, late Tuesday night.

Since early May, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig had been anchored in waters that Vietnam claims fall well within its exclusive economic zone. Hanoi responded to the unannounced arrival by allowing the public to hold the first large-scale demonstrations in recent memory.

However, smoldering nationalist anger exploded into deadly bouts of rioting at industrial parks in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province in mid-May.

Factories were razed, several Chinese workers were killed and relations between the neighbors deteriorated to their lowest ebb since diplomatic ties were renewed in the early 1990s.

Beijing remained unmoved by Hanoi’s objections, despite continued protests from the highest levels of government.

“The relations are certainly damaged and the outlook is not encouraging, particularly as China has indicated it has plans to send out more oil rigs to disputed waters and has made provocative statements with respect to its plans in the Spratly chain,” Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, tells TIME.

Tensions remain high. A study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday reported that 84% of the Vietnamese polled said they were concerned that conflict could erupt with their northern neighbor.

Professor Bruce Jacobs, an Asia expert at Australia’s Monash University, says the deployment of Haiyang Shiyou 981 must be viewed within the context of Beijing’s brazen maneuvers to consolidate its long-held, albeit highly disputed, grandiose maritime claims across the Asia-Pacific. “The oil rig was just part of that,” he says.

With China unrepentant, the U.S. has attempted to use the episode to strengthen relations with its Asian partnerships and position itself as an arbitrator in the Pacific.

Last week Michael Fuchs, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, called on all states claiming a stake in the South China Sea “to clarify and agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability.”

In response, Beijing accused the U.S. of unsolicited meddling.

“We hope that countries outside the region can stay neutral, distinguish right from wrong and truly respect the joint efforts made by regional countries for peace and stability of the region,” said Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, on Tuesday.

TIME China

Many Asian Nations Believe That a War With China Is Looming

Abner Afuang, a retired policeman, sets fire to an inverted Chinese national flag in a protest action in Manila,
Abner Afuang, a retired policeman, sets fire to an inverted Chinese national flag during a protest in Manila on June 9, 2014. Romeo Ranoco—Reuters

A majority in the Asian countries polled in a new Pew study say they fear a looming military conflict with China

China’s neighbors fear the worst is yet to come.

Strong-arm tactics and tough talk coming from Beijing in the past year have succeeded in convincing neighboring countries that war may just be around the corner, according to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center.

“In all 11 Asian nations polled, roughly half or more say they are concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict,” read the report published by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank on Monday.

In Vietnam, where relations with Beijing have been exceptionally tense since a state-owned Chinese drilling platform moved into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands in early May, 84% of participants said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that territorial disputes could lead to war.

In Japan, which is embroiled with Beijing in disputes over vacant outcroppings in the East China Sea, 85% concurred.

Farther south in the Philippines, 93% of those polled feared the possibility of conflict with China. The archipelago nation has a number of ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea and, much to Beijing’s chagrin, is pursuing international arbitration in a bid to settle those claims.

While many of the territorial disagreements with China have been ongoing for years, a number of incidents initiated by Beijing in the past nine months have led to increasingly strained ties across the region.

The perennially taut relationship between Tokyo and Beijing reached a flash point late last year when China unilaterally declared the establishment of an air-defense zone that covered the skies over disputed isles in the East China Sea.

Both Manila and Hanoi have meanwhile accused China of maintaining a large presence of paramilitary vessels, coast-guard ships and fishing boats in disputed maritime areas in a bid to edge rival nations out of contested waters. Experts following the region say the tactic must have had clearance from the upper echelons of power in Beijing.

“Xi Jinping and the central military commission as well as key figures in Zhongnanhai — they took a calculated risk,” Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia office, tells TIME. “China is testing the tensile strength of the sort of hub-and-spokes alliance system in the region.”

A majority of the Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and South Koreans surveyed considered China as their nation’s top threat and the U.S. as their nation’s most important ally, according to Pew.

Only Pakistani and Malaysian respondents named the U.S. as their top foe and saw China as their biggest ally. (Indonesia was the lone country where respondents named the U.S. as both their biggest threat and No. 1 partner.)

The publication of the Pew poll comes after Washington has upped both economic and military cooperation with its Asian allies and fostered relations with former foe Vietnam to counter China’s increasingly brazen moves in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing has not responded kindly.

“What we seem to be seeing is increasing polarization in Washington and in Beijing,” says Neill. “The Sino-U.S. relationship is going through a rocky period.”

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on China to avoid engaging in behavior that would “destabilize the Asia-Pacific region” and to refrain from enforcing its air-defense zone.

But Beijing does not appear to be interested in backing down. An editorial published in the state-linked Global Times on Monday fired back at Washington.

“[China] has the right to safeguard its sovereignty and it has no intention to go to war,” read the editorial. “China will not make trouble, but equally is unafraid of any trouble.”

TIME China

China Says Vietnamese Vessels Rammed Its Boats ‘1,416 Times’

Tension Rises In Disputed Area of South China Sea
A Chinese coast guard ship navigates around Chinese drilling equipment located in waters off the disputed Paracel Islands on May 28, 2014. The Asahi Shimbun

It's the latest in the war of words between the two countries

China’s Foreign Ministry has accused Vietnam of ramming into its ships more than 1,400 times near a highly controversial Chinese oil rig, according to a statement issued on Sunday night.

Vietnam, as well as other Southeast Asian nations, has been involved in a tense dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“As of 5 p.m. on 7 June, there were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area at the peak, attempting to break through China’s cordon and ramming the Chinese government ships for a total of 1,416 times,” said Chinese officials.

Beijing’s claim comes two days after Vietnam’s state television aired a video that appeared to show a Chinese ship chasing a small Vietnamese boat — later sinking it.

Tension over China’s drilling operations near the disputed Paracel Islands escalated into anti-China riots in Vietnam in May. Up to four Chinese citizens were killed.


TIME China

China Fires Back at U.S. Criticism Over Asia-Pacific Instability

From left: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, China's deputy chief of General Staff during the start of their meeting on May 31, 2014 in Singapore.
From left: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, China's deputy chief of General Staff during the start of their meeting on May 31, 2014 in Singapore. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—Getty Images

The gloves came off between the U.S. and China during a defense conference in Asia over the weekend, following Beijing’s forays into disputed areas of the South China Sea early last month

Diplomatic platitudes took a backseat to tough talk in Singapore over the weekend, as Beijing slammed Washington for investing in a “containment fantasy” after the U.S. accused China of overseeing “destabilizing” maneuvers in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel laid into China for allowing a state-owned drilling rig to drop anchor in the heart of heavily contested waters off the Vietnamese coast. He was speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims,” Hagel told the conference. “We also oppose any effort — by any nation — to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation, whether from military or civilian vessels [or] from countries big or small.”

Beijing did not take kindly to the forceful criticism.

“Hagel’s speech was full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation,” said Lieut. General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, on Sunday.

“It was a speech to abet destabilizing factors to create trouble and make provocations. It was not a constructive speech.”

China’s stated-backed Global Times on Sunday railed against the Obama Administration’s renewed diplomatic thrust into Asia, which Beijing derides as a thinly veiled effort to contain China’s rise.

“Strengthened military alliance against China does not contribute to regional stability that the United States has touted for, but rather constitutes a provocative and hostile move that stirs up regional tension,” read an editorial.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue came at an increasingly hostile time in the region. Just four days before the meeting commenced, Hanoi accused Chinese vessels of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat near the controversial oil rig in the South China Sea.

The incident was the latest flash point between the countries since the drilling platform entered waters claimed by Vietnam last month.

During a keynote address on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to supply both the Philippines and Vietnam with patrol boats. Japan has its own bitter territorial disputes with Beijing.

“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies,” said Abe, according to the BBC.

Wang later dismissed the Japanese Prime Minister’s comments as “provocative.”


Abe Moves a Step Closer to Easing Restraints on Japan’s Military

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on May 15, 2014 Kazuhiro Nogi—AFP/Getty Images

Japan's Prime Minister makes an explicit connection between China's territorial ambitions in the South and East China seas and Japan's ability to defend itself and its allies

Against the backdrop of violent clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese patrol ships in the South China Sea last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to change the interpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to engage in “collective self-defense.”

That means Japan’s potent but currently low-profile military would be allowed to fight alongside the U.S. or other friendly forces — even if Japanese troops or territory do not come under direct attack first.

In a live, televised speech, Abe made a direct connection between the Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes and the tense standoff over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The outcrops are claimed by both Japan and China, which refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands.

“In the South China Sea, as we speak, conflict among nations continues as a unilateral action against the backdrop of force and coercion,” Abe said. “This is not a fire on the other side of the shore of the river. In the East China Sea, the Japan Coast Guard [and] the self-defense forces — under high tension, on a 24-hour, around-the-clock basis — are engaging in patrol activities [against] intrusions in Japanese territorial waters.”

Abe says the new constitutional interpretation is necessary to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance and deal with an increasingly hostile security environment in Asia.

Easing restraints on Japan’s military and instilling a sense of “patriotism” among the Japanese has long been a goal of Abe and his conservative, if not nationalist, supporters.

Under the new interpretation, Japanese troops would be able to defend U.S. ships at sea, shoot down ballistic missiles headed toward U.S. territory, protect U.N. troops on peacekeeping missions, rescue Japanese citizens overseas and engage in similar activities.

“What Abe is saying is that to play the global role that is expected of Japan, given its size and its capacity, they should be able to assist the international community in certain situations where peace and stability are in danger and in joining the defense of other countries. This is something the Americans have been asking Japan to do for decades,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

When the new policy will go into effect is still unclear. Although a national referendum is not required — as it would be if Abe had proposed changing the constitution itself — the Diet will have to amend laws regulating the self-defense forces, peacekeeping operations and related issues.

That may not be easy. Opinion polls show that roughly half the population is opposed to the new interpretation. Article 9, the foundation of Japan’s 70-year commitment to pacifism, expressly renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Although Abe’s ruling coalition holds a solid majority in both houses of the Diet, even some members of his Liberal Democratic Party have expressed reservations about the change. Debate on the issue began on Tuesday, though a final resolution is not expected until later in the year.

“People are worried about three major things: the risk that this revision will lead to the Japan Self-Defense Force being more actively engaged in overseas military operations, that this will lead to Japan’s policies under Abe being increasingly militarized and assertive, and that this will be the first step toward a new Article 9, which would not only dilute but destroy Japan’s image as a country of peace,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University and author of a forthcoming book on Japan’s postwar military and security.

Abe insisted during his speech last week that Japan remains committed to peace and that the new policy — issued in the form of recommendations from an advisory panel — would not be the first step on the road to remilitarization.

While Japan’s right to defend itself independently from attack would not change, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only under a specific set of conditions and only after careful deliberations by the Cabinet, Abe said.

According to panel recommendations, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only when requested by a foreign country “in close relationship with Japan” and would involve “minimum necessary” use of force.

Abe said Japan would not be dragged into American-led multinational operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he was not clear in how distinctions would be made.

Unsurprisingly, the new policy was viewed with suspicion by some of Japan’s neighbors.

“China, as well as the Republic of Korea, have been critical and vigilant about this for a long time. Abe’s stance on such issues as Japan’s role during World War II and comfort-women issues make most of the people in these two countries more doubtful about the reinterpretation of Japan’s right of collective self-defense,” says Tiejun Yu, assistant president at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing.

Not to worry – Japan will not be dispatching troops at every opportunity, counters Kuni Miyake, research director for foreign affairs and national security at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

“Collective self-defense is a right — it’s not on obligation. The government will make decisions based on each situation. We have to show that we can behave — that under our democracy, we can control ourselves and that we have self-discipline and restraint,” Miyake says.

But what if the standoff in the South China Sea were to escalate and Vietnam were to ask for Japan’s help in defending its interests from China? Would Japan invoke the right of collective self-defense and come to Vietnam’s aid?

“I think it’s unlikely. There are many, many ifs involved,” Miyake says. “But, I would not completely rule it out.”


Two Ships Have Arrived in Vietnam to Evacuate Chinese Nationals

China Vietnam
Chinese passenger ships Wuzhishan, center, and Tongguling, left, seen at Haikou, capital of south China's Hainan province, before their departure on May 18, 2014 Wei Hua—AP

Three more Chinese vessels are on their way in an evacuation operation being conducted in response to anti-Chinese violence last week over long-standing territorial disputes, one day after 290 Chinese citizens were flown out aboard two chartered planes

Two Chinese passenger ships arrived early on Monday at the central-Vietnamese port of Vung Ang to evacuate Chinese nationals, who are fearing for their safety after anti-Chinese riots last week saw foreign businesses attacked, two Chinese killed and about 140 people injured.

More than 3,000 Chinese have already been helped to leave the country following protests that flared up across Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig that is drilling in waters claimed by both sides. Beijing has announced a 4.8-km exclusion zone around the rig, and Hanoi claims that there are 119 Chinese vessels in the area, including warships.

On Sunday, 290 Chinese citizens were flown out aboard two chartered planes, with another 16 critically injured Chinese evacuated on a medical flight, Xinhua news agency reports.

Public protests are a rarity in communist Vietnam. The security forces have been deployed in Ho Chi Minh City to quell new waves of demonstrations, and mobile carriers have sent repeated texts to subscribers with a message from Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asking people to stay away from further protests.

However, small groups of peaceful protesters continued to gather on Sunday, and neither side has shown any real sign of backing down over the territorial conflict, which has revived a long-standing enmity between Beijing and Hanoi.

The two Chinese vessels that arrived on Monday each have a capacity of 1,000 people and are among five boats that will take part in the evacuation operation, a port official told the Associated Press. The vessels are presently berthed at a huge Taiwanese steel-mill complex that was overrun by an anti-China mob, and their presence is eerily reminiscent of a similar evacuation in 1978 that horribly backfired.

That year, with a war with Hanoi in the offing, China also sent ships to Vietnam — to evacuate members of Vietnam’s ethnically Chinese minority, known as Hoa. Hanoi took grave affront when the vessels arrived (“The South China Sea is not China’s own pond. Haiphong and Ho Chi Minh City are not Chinese ports” read a Vietnamese commentary at the time). Instead of allowing Hoa to board the Chinese ships, the Vietnamese Public Security Bureau built boats and fleeced the ethnic Chinese of gold and currency in exchange for being allowed to leave the country aboard the rickety vessels. Thirty thousand to 40,000 Hoa, and Vietnamese pretending to be Hoa, are believed to have perished at sea as a result.

China’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile said on Sunday it had issued a warning against travel to Vietnam and was suspending some diplomatic contact.

TIME Vietnam

Vietnamese PM: Fight On for the Fatherland, Just Do It Legally

A security guard stands near a damaged Chinese owned shoe factory in Vietnam's southern Binh Duong province
A security guard stands near a damaged Chinese owned shoe factory in Vietnam's southern Binh Duong province May 14, 2014. Reuters

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party appears to be in damage control after an orgy of violence led to the destruction of hundreds of foreign-owned factories across the country, with Chinese businesses particularly in the crosshairs

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung encouraged his fellow Vietnamese on Thursday to defend the country’s territorial integrity but with the appropriate behavior, after unchecked nationalist rage escalated into horrific riots.

In an unusual move, the Premier reached out via text message to almost the entire nation, urging citizens to continue protecting the “fatherland,” albeit in more a lawful manner.

“The Prime Minister requests and calls on every Vietnamese to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland’s sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law,” read the message, according to the Associated Press.

“Bad elements should not be allowed to instigate extremist actions that harm the interests and image of the country.”

The nationwide appeal comes after a spate of anti-Chinese riots exploded across Vietnam this week in response to Beijing’s placement of a state-owned oil rig in highly contested waters off the country’s coast.

Hundreds of factories were reportedly razed in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, while a steel project in central Ha Tinh province was rocked by mob violence targeting Chinese laborers. Varying reports surfaced Thursday that Chinese nationals may have been killed during the upheaval.

“If [the Vietnamese leadership] has any chance of gaining the international support it needs to resolve this dispute, it absolutely must do a better job of communicating to its own people and to the world what exactly is going on,” Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, tells TIME.

On Friday, officials claimed to have arrested more than 600 people in and around Ho Chi Minh City and another 78 in Ha Tinh province in response to the rioting.

During a press conference in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese officials appeared unconvinced by the official response and pinned blame for the carnage firmly on the Vietnamese authorities.

“It is worth pointing out that the Vietnamese side has an inescapable responsibility for the beating, smashing, looting and burning targeted at China and other countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

Chinese netizens expressed similar sentiments online.

“The Vietnamese government is now deliberately indulging bad people to make trouble,” Haoyun2013 wrote on popular social-media outlet Sina Weibo.

On Friday, Vietnamese state media attempted to return the spotlight to the unresolved crisis festering in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh told his Chinese counterpart during a phone call that Beijing must recall the drilling platform and the 100 vessels escorting it from “Vietnamese seas.”

“He stressed that China’s act seriously damaged the mutual trust between the two countries as well as Vietnamese people’s sentiment [and] runs counter to the agreements reached by their high-ranking leaders,” read a statement by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But despite this verbal sparring, the two countries appear to have made nascent moves toward behind-the-scenes reconciliation. China vowed Thursday to deploy a diplomatic envoy to Vietnam, while Hanoi reportedly sent Deputy Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son to China for a three-day visit earlier this week.

Chinese state media remain as bellicose as ever, though. Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times dismissed Vietnam’s continued calls to remove the platform in its latest vitriolic article about the crisis.

“China will never give in to her [Vietnam], and she doesn’t have the strength to force China to back off,” read an editorial on Thursday.

TIME Vietnam

Anti-China Riots in Vietnam Leave at Least 21 Dead

A general view of a damaged Chinese owned shoe factory is seen in Vietnam's southern Binh Duong province May 14, 2014. Thanh Tung Truong—Reuters

Protests against China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea have spread to central Vietnam, where more factories have been torched. Hundreds of ethnic Chinese have fled the country

At least 21 people were killed as anti-China riots in southern Vietnam escalated and spread to the center of the country on Thursday.

A doctor in Ha Tinh province described five of the dead as Vietnamese workers and others as Chinese. He said they were among roughly 100 people sent to his hospital, Reuters reports. Over 600 Chinese have fled across the border to Cambodia.

The riots erupted following a large-scale demonstration on Tuesday to protest China’s May 1 deployment of an oil rig in waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi, triggering the most critical stand-off between the two countries in over three decades.

Rioters have torched and vandalized dozens of foreign-owned factories, mistaking them for Chinese enterprises. On Wednesday, they attacked a $20 billion Taiwanese-owned steel plant set to be the largest in Southeast Asia once it is completed in 2020.

About 600 people have been arrested for looting and inciting the crowd in Binh Duong province, where the riots started, state-run Thanh Nien newspaper quoted the local police chief as saying.

An editorial in the Beijing-friendly Global Times said that Vietnam had “cornered itself” and pointed out that demonstrators during similar outbursts of nationalist fervor in China — such as the anti-Japan demonstrations of 2012 — were more restrained. (However, Japanese automakers lost an estimated $250 million in output during the protests over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.)

Vietnamese and Philippine hopes of a united regional stance in the face of Chinese assertiveness were meanwhile dashed as Southeast Asian leaders failed to agree on a joint statement during the ASEAN summit last weekend. Hanoi and Manila are the most embroiled in territorial conflicts with China in the South China Sea, but face opposition from neighboring countries with precious economic ties to Beijing.

The United States has called on both sides to show restraint, with White House spokesman Jay Carney telling a regular briefing that this kind of dispute needs “to be resolved through dialogue, not through intimidation.”


TIME Vietnam

The Last Time China Got Into a Fight With Vietnam, It Was a Disaster

Vietnam China Anger
Vietnamese protest against China’s deployment of an oil rig in the disputed South China Sea in front of the Chinese Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday, May 10, 2014. Associated Press

Current Sino-Vietnamese tensions are merely the latest in a series of bitter conflicts between the two countries. The last time Hanoi and Beijing pushed each other to the brink, tens of thousands perished

Smoldering nationalist anger in Vietnam exploded into frenzied violence in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City this week as thousands of rioters swept through industrial parks north of the city’s commercial hub, razing any factory believed to be Chinese owned. After more than two decades of peace, Beijing and Hanoi are at odds again.

China’s decision earlier this month to deploy a colossal, state-owned oil rig in fiercely contested waters off the Vietnamese coast appears to have succeeded in derailing the delicate relations between the countries.

The Chinese state press lashed out publicly at its southern neighbor on the heels of several maritime skirmishes last week, with one hawkish editorial calling on Beijing to teach Vietnam the “lesson it deserves.” The language closely resembled Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 vow to teach Hanoi a “lesson” — and the echo is most unfortunate, because on that occasion the result was tens of thousands of deaths.

Like many Vietnamese of her generation, 75-year-old Dim remembers the conflict well. During the early hours of Feb. 17, 1979, she was asleep with her husband and children in their stone cottage in farmlands outside the northern city of Cao Bang, when the sky opened up with artillery shells.

“We didn’t have time to grab anything,” says Dim. “I just ran.”

It was the beginning of two years of homelessness and hunger as the starving family wandered through the mountains, begging and looking for refuge. Although decades have passed since the war’s end, she still shudders with loathing of the Chinese.

“Oh! I still hate them,” says Dim. “I’m still scared of the Chinese people, even now. I don’t know when I’ll next have to run.”

Official memories in Vietnam, however, are far more selective. While the country proudly celebrates its victorious wars against French and American forces, Hanoi remains largely quiet about the Sino-Vietnamese War. (China’s official stance is even more muted.) But that hasn’t kept the Vietnamese people from simmering with animosity toward their historic foe.

In the years following the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina, relations among the socialist nations of Southeast Asia violently deteriorated. Pogroms conducted against Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese community, and the overthrow by Vietnamese forces of Pol Pot — Beijing’s ally — set the stage for a showdown, as did Vietnam’s alliance with China’s great rival, the Soviet Union.

In the winter of 1978, when Deng Xiaoping made his threat of a “lesson,” more than 80,000 Chinese troops were sent across the border into Vietnam. Chinese Deputy Defense Minister Su Yu boasted of being able to take Hanoi in a week, but the untested and under-equipped People’s Liberation Army (PLA) met fierce resistance from battle-hardened Vietnamese forces deployed across the frontier’s limestone karsts. The Chinese were slaughtered by local militia from positions that had been utilized for centuries against invaders from the north.

“More Chinese soldiers were getting killed because they were fighting like it was the old times,” says Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Huu Hung, who witnessed the PLA’s human waves being mown down near the city of Lang Son. “They were in lines and just keep moving ahead … they didn’t run away.”

It would take just six weeks for Beijing to call off its “self-defensive counteroffensive.” Teaching the Vietnamese a lesson turned out to be a costly affair. Official casualty statistics have never been released by either Beijing or Hanoi; however, analysts have estimate that as many as 50,000 soldiers died during the confrontation.

“I heard that [China] said they wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson, but I can’t see what the lesson was,” says Hung. “Our job was to fight against them. But the losses, to be honest, were huge.”

When the Chinese began their pullout in early March, the retreating troops implemented a barbaric scorched-earth policy. Every standing structure in their path was destroyed. Any livestock they encountered were killed. Bitterness was sown.

Much like Dim, 59-year-old Nhung fears that someday the Chinese may return. Illiterate and impoverished, the ethnic Tay native remembers how Chinese troops gathered all the food stocks from surrounding villages and set their provisions ablaze. “It didn’t stop burning for 10 days,” she says.

After the invasion commenced, Nhung took shelter in musty limestone caverns that housed the surviving members of 14 local villages just a few miles south of the Chinese border. From time to time they would sneak out to forage for food.

“If they saw someone on the road, [the Chinese] would fire at them,” says Nhung, who now sells roasted sweet potatoes and bottles of tea to the occasional tourists who visit the caves she once cowered in.

By 1991, Vietnam was five years into its nascent economic reforms and in desperate need of friends. The Soviet Union was falling apart and the Americans were still holding firm to their embargo against the country, but China was rising. Hanoi repaired ties with Beijing, and for the past two decades the country’s ruling Communist Parties have largely remained as “close as lips as teeth,” as the old socialist slogan goes.

“They face similar challenges,” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia office, tells TIME. “I think there’s quite considerable empathy between them in that they’re both trying to manage a transition to economic and social modernity.”

However, one irritant in the relationship continues to fester — Beijing’s ambitious claim over a lion’s share of the South China Sea. With an estimated 24.7 trillion cu. ft. of proven natural gas and 4.4 billion barrels of oil waiting to be tapped, Vietnam’s economic future is dependent on having access to its share of those waters.

“What’s the party got? It’s not popular vote. It’s not the charismatic leadership of Ho Chi Minh,” says Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and a Vietnam specialist. “It has the vestiges of nationalism and standing up to foreign aggressors and it has economic growth.”

Sporadic protests against China have been increasingly common in the country in recent years, and when the government’s response to Chinese aggrandizement is viewed as weak, a new crop of rebel netizens harasses the party online for kowtowing to Beijing.

“If [the leadership is] shown to actually be compromising on national sovereignty for the sake of ideological solidarity with China, that is a very, very grave criticism of the party,” says Nayan Chanda, editor in chief of YaleGlobal online magazine.

In 2013, the Vietnamese government arrested more than 40 bloggers and activists for making such criticisms, among other things. Over 30 are still behind bars, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But following last week’s clashes over the oil rig, the Vietnamese government has taken a decidedly harder line with Beijing. During the ASEAN Summit in Burma, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung blasted the Chinese for “slandering” Vietnam and escalating tensions in the region.

“National territory is sacred,” the Prime Minister told fellow heads of state. “Vietnam vehemently denounces acts of infringement and will resolutely protect our national sovereignty and legitimate interests in conformity with the international law.”

Large officially sanctioned demonstrations have also been allowed across the country, and the state press has, for the first time in recent memory, followed the unrest closely. On social media, users are decrying Chinese arrogance and some are calling for Chinese blood.

Veterans like Hung, however, show a little bit more caution. He knows only too well what happens when both sides push each other to the brink.

“I don’t think the rest of the society, especially young people, know enough about [that war],” says Hung.

But even Hung, who now has business in southern China, and who admits that politics hardly interests him, says he would pick up arms without hesitation if the Chinese ever came knocking again.

“Of course,” he says with a steady voice. “Because I’m Vietnamese.”

TIME Vietnam

Vietnamese Protesters Torch Factories in Anti-China Unrest

In a sign of growing anti-Beijing sentiment, Vietnamese demonstrators set fire to 15 Taiwan-, South Korean– and other foreign-owned factories because they mistook them for Chinese enterprises

If you are going to torch a factory in a fit of nationalism, make sure you get the right factory. That’s the lesson for thousands of Vietnamese who swarmed a Singapore-run industrial park in southern Vietnam late Tuesday. The demonstrators turned arsonists set fire to 15 foreign-owned factories, reports the Associated Press, including some that were Taiwan- or South Korean–owned. Many other businesses were trashed.

The rioting followed largely peaceful protests by some 20,000 Vietnamese in Binh Duong province late Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, people on motorcycles rode through the area carrying Vietnamese flags, AP noted. One witness said foreign-owned enterprises were now hanging up pro-Vietnamese banners. “We love Vietnam,” read one.

It is still unclear if anybody was hurt in the melee, but the injuries to business could be steep: the chairwoman of the Council of Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam told Reuters the cost to Taiwan companies would be billions of dollars.

For the rest of us, the incident serves as a reminder of just how quickly a Sino-Vietnamese spat can escalate. Tuesday night’s riot started as a demonstration against China’s May 1 deployment of a massive oil rig in waters claimed by both sides. Over the past few days, there have been several skirmishes between ships from both sides, and protests across the Vietnam. On Sunday, Vietnam’s Prime Minister accused China of “brazenly” triggering the dispute.

But strong words will not be enough to dissuade Beijing. The current maritime standoff is not just about the oil rig, but unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea. Otherwise solid ties between China and Vietnam have, for the most part, kept conflict at bay. That Vietnam’s otherwise restrictive ruling party is letting people protest shows a new willingness to speak up. But the torching of foreign-owned factories was certainly not the outcome they hoped for.

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