Why tensions are building in Southeast Asia
May 19th, 2014
02:34 PM ET

Why tensions are building in Southeast Asia

By Lord Michael Williams, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Williams is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House and a former senior official in the United Nations. The views expressed are his own.

Five Chinese ships will arrive in Vietnam over the next few days to evacuate thousands of Chinese workers from the country. Hundreds more have fled to Cambodia and many are missing. Another 16 critically injured were evacuated by aircraft. This exodus has followed almost a week of rioting and anti-Chinese demonstrations throughout the country – the most serious such protests in Vietnam for many years, which have also hit Taiwanese as well as mainland companies.

The demonstrations were triggered by an abrupt Chinese move of a giant deep sea oil rig close to the fiercely contested Paracel islands, a move that the United States called “provocative.” For the Vietnamese, the move was a painful reminder of China’s violent seizure of the islands in 1974 in the dying days of the old South Vietnamese government, before the unification of the country. That move, at a time of national weakness, is still remembered forty years on by Vietnamese.

As a result of all this, fears of a clash at sea between Vietnam and China have risen in the increasingly febrile atmosphere evident in the region. Warships from the two countries are reportedly deployed dangerously close to the contested Chinese oil rig. For its part, Vietnam has still not revealed the number of Chinese killed in recent incidents, but it is believed to be as many as twenty.

Tensions between China and Vietnam are not new and predate the 19th century French colonial occupation. As recently as 1979, Beijing and Hanoi fought a brief but bitter war following Vietnam’s toppling of the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge administration in Cambodia. Although relations between the two communist-governed countries improved substantially after the eclipse of the Soviet Union, resentment against China is never far below the surface in Vietnam, as is true in other Southeast Asian countries.

However, in the past few years that resentment has been fed by China’s growing assertiveness of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, claims that have brought it into dispute not only with Vietnam, but also with the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia – all of whom have contested claims with China. And while there is no territorial dispute between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ largest country, Indonesia, and China, Jakarta is still extremely concerned about an apparent willingness of China to project economic and military power in the region dangerously close to the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (Borneo).

Yet until the events of the past week in Vietnam, resentment of China had in recent years been largely confined to sharp exchanges between foreign ministries and maritime standoffs in the South China Sea. Now, that resentment has assumed a dangerous popular element which will have a resonance throughout the region. After all, back in 1998, the downfall of the unpopular Suharto government in Indonesia was accompanied by days of rioting in Jakarta that claimed the lives of up to 1,000 ethnic Chinese.

The rioting in Vietnam has been widespread and not confined to large cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In some instances as many as 20,000 workers have been involved. The authorities have, at best, struggled to confine it and, some claim, turned a blind eye to some of the anti-Chinese excesses. Indeed, the first demonstrations in Hanoi were officially sanctioned – a rare occurrence in Vietnam. And while the government has subsequently condemned the violence, it has also called on the people “to protect our sovereign territory.”

China’s behavior is being closely watched in other ASEAN countries that have conflicting territorial claims with China. Many ASEAN leaders are privately, if not publicly, concerned, not least because they see a disturbing Chinese pattern of behavior. This has been reinforced by Chinese action in reinforcing its presence at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly islands, also claimed by the Philippines, reclaiming land with the apparent intention of building an airstrip on the island.

That this Chinese action should have come less than two weeks after the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the Philippines has been widely noticed throughout Southeast Asia and does not bode well for Sino-U.S. relations. Indeed some ASEAN observers have seen it as deliberate snub to the U.S. president.

Regardless, at the summit of ASEAN leaders in Myanmar earlier this month, the dispute between Vietnam and China dominated discussions. And while member states have been divided in the past between those with territorial disputes with China and those not in that predicament, there is growing recognition that Beijing’s increasing assertiveness is unlikely to diminish in the coming years.

With this in mind, although China’s neighbors may be fearful of Beijing’s growing might, they themselves are becoming more assertive. Back in 2012, when ASEAN held its summit in Phnom Penh, member nations failed to reach consensus on China’s growing maritime role, and China was widely blamed for exerting intense political pressure on Cambodia to ensure that the maritime territorial disputes were not mentioned in a final group statement. Fast forward to this year’s summit, though, and even China’s staunchest ally in ASEAN started to fall into line as the group issued a statement called for all parties in the maritime disputes to exercise restraint.

True, China was not mentioned directly in ASEAN’s statement. But in a region that has largely been wary of antagonizing its giant neighbor, it was just the latest sign that Southeast Asian nations are determined not to be pushed around.


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Topics: Asia • China

soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. chri§§y

    Just cuz he doesnt buy into all the warmongering hes a wimp?? Takes a bigger man to walk away from a fight then to engage in one that has no point! Sheesh!

    May 19, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Reply
    • John Smith

      America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
      In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
      During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
      In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
      Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

      May 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Reply
      • Ivan Ivanovich

        Is your name really John?

        May 20, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
      • Ronbro51

        Well John, if you are in America, then leave. Go to Vietnam, Thailand, China or other asian countries where you will feel quite at home and safe. We don't want you here. See how better they take care of you in those countries as a foreigner.

        May 22, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
      • Rabbit

        John is apparently a 50cent Chinese troll. He can wear any hat he wants, but when he opens his mounth, noodles are everywhere.

        May 25, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
      • Aurora

        China coastguard acts as pirates in South China sea for almost a decade now, ramming, robbing, extorting poor unarmed Vietnamese and Phil fishermen right in their own country's EEZ. Some wooden fishing boats cant take the ram of a much bigger coastguard ship and never made it to the shoreline.

        Google "Vietnam fishing boat attacked". Add "youtube" for video for evident.

        May 25, 2014 at 10:08 pm |
      • minh trang

        you are.....Chinese ?

        May 26, 2014 at 1:54 am |
      • Chris Kubrick

        You just sound silly here. And it is your rampant, unchecked, and sometimes inaccurate portrayal of America as some kind of world villain that feeds the populism and and revisionist feuding. America is guilty of wrongs that need forgiving and explaining, but America has also done some great things, too. And if you really can't think of one in the past 100 years, then you're just a trolling robot for the your own out-of-control nationalism.

        Notice any critique for those who we did invade? Afghanistan, Vietnam, and North Korea. Three nations that at one point or another have boasted some of the most aggregious rights violation records in modern history. But sure, it's all our bad.

        China, by the way, has some of the worst air-quality in the world. It violently quelled the region of Tibet in the early 1950s. It conducted widespread debeautification practices. The Russians conducted the purges in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s all over the Eastern bloc and in their own land. Iran, the country you alluded to, kust arrested people for making a video about happiness. But yes, America is the evil one. Sheesh.

        May 27, 2014 at 8:59 am |
    • acrII

      The 50-Cent Warriors are easy to spot. They can not pronounce the world 'THE.' So they do not use it in their writing, either...

      May 26, 2014 at 4:58 am | Reply
  2. chri§§y

    And i would also like to point out that EVERY POTUS in the history of this country at least had a team backing him....EXCEPT Obama! Hes had to fight every inch of the way to get anything accomplished. Theres a saying i learned along time ago : TEAM= Together Everyone Achieves More! So if you wanta get something done ya gotta work together and those egotrippinmaniacs in the 114th congress have been total FAILURES and they are destroying this country!!! That makes them traitors in my eyes!

    May 19, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  3. Ferhat Balkan

    Unfortunately, things are only going to get worse. As China's economy has seen an uncontrollable surge in recent years, so has the demand for energy and oil. As time goes on, China will become fiercely territorial due to the huge increase in demand for resources. We're talking about providing for the needs of a population of 1.4 billion.

    May 19, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  4. chri§§y

    And it looks like vietnam won THIS battle also @ Eri!!!

    May 19, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Reply
    • Rabbit

      China cant win, because they are doing wrong, and somebody has to tell them so.

      May 25, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  5. kwannaaaboo

    Chinese economy is running on borrowed time 24 trillion in debt this makes desperate to drill oil in vietnam's backyard

    May 20, 2014 at 12:48 am | Reply
    • Aurora

      This event is more likely to test VN and more importantly, US reaction. It does help to bring VN closer to Philippines position and the idea of alliance with US that VN tried to resist for 10 years. Once VN & Phil decide to stand up, other ASEAN countries will soon follow.

      May 25, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • acrII

      China has about 45+years of coal reserves and 85% of their electricity is produced using COAL...

      Unlike the EU & USA – China's NG is locked in tight formations and will produce little additional NG...

      China just opened a oil/NG pipeline to Russia's Siberia oil fields. Unfortunatly the Russian infastructure is falling apart...

      China's oil/NG deals with Brazil, Venezalia and Canada, depend on the USA not shutting down their shipping lanes...

      IMO – The fight for the China Sea resources will happen during the next decade, if not NOW...

      May 26, 2014 at 5:08 am | Reply
  6. jonh smith

    all Chinese in vn should get out now before the next rise up of the Vietnamese people.Next time they won't be lucky to get out alive.

    May 20, 2014 at 6:16 am | Reply
    • Aurora

      Taiwanese are welcome to stay. Better have a Taiwan flag on your door for sure. There are a lot of Chinese Vietnamese living there, they were not targeted.

      May 26, 2014 at 1:51 am | Reply
  7. george haricote

    Surprise, surprise. These arguments are a now-familiar part of the new propaganda campaign launched against China and Russia as Wall Street moguls try desperately to derail the huge new energy agreement between those two nations. It's highly unlikely that several thousand Vietnamese would hit the streets and commit severe violence in response to a maritime shoving match 150 miles from Vietnam's coast. It's much more likely that the violent protests are paid for, and indeed reports to that effect have been circulating. Also, Vietnam is participating in the TPP pact and in doing so is making its people available as dirt-cheap labor. With Vietnam's thousands of Chinese companies burned or closed, the path is open for Western companies to step in and make big profits. In the meantime, Western officials are exaggerating the relatively minor disputes between China and its neighbors as part of the campaign to isolate and attack China on every front. They are doing the same to Russia over Ukraine, and for the same reason - Western economies are failing while Russia and China are poised to enter a new era of prosperity and power. What's remarkable is how blatant the U.S. and European propaganda efforts have become, and how gullible so many people still are in buying into it.

    May 20, 2014 at 7:40 am | Reply
    • Johnson

      well, there is nothing about exaggeration here because China used armed ship rammed into Vietnam Coastguard, use water cannon to attack fisherman, even they hit fishermen, strip their fishing tools. They claim 80 percent of sea area. They set up the illegal oil rig into Vietnam's territory. They do not care about the international law of sea in 1982. They make up the story about Vietnam attack them first. Where is the justice ?

      May 20, 2014 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • LoneThinker

      George, you sound like a Russian or Chinese troll with a good command of the English language. Unfortunately for you, both Russia and China will find it impossible to dislodge the US as a global superpower anytime soon. And for that there are quite a few reasons...Let me point out the most obvious one: militarily, the US is light years ahead of both these regional powers. Also, to be a global superpower you have to be somewhat "cool" (e.g. cool movies, cool music, cool cars etc.) Neither China nor Russia are even close to the term "cool". All superpowers in history were cool. Those 2 never were and never will be cool. So they'll never be superpowers. Yes, I'm serious :-)))

      May 20, 2014 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • PieterT63

      Sorry George but I don't think it was the US or any other western powers that pushed Russia into seizing Crimea or forcing China to start fishing or drilling in other peoples territories. You sound educated but your reasoning falls flat.

      May 20, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
      • Bumsteer

        PieterT63...you don't think the U.S. or Western Europe had "any" play in Ukrainian politics before the Russians moved into

        Russia complained for years about the meddling of the West/NATO into the former Warsaw Pack countries. While not justified, it was not unexpected that Putin would move if there was a chance of Ukraine falling into the West as well.

        "NOTHING" happens in a vacuum; Putin acted irrationally, but one could see the outcome from a mile away.

        We should have kept our noses out of Ukrainian politics. Russia had no intent on annexing Crimea until Yushchenko was ousted.

        May 21, 2014 at 8:58 pm |
      • Aurora

        His parents gave him an education, but not a soul to distinguish between RIGHT and WRONG. GOOD and EVIL. Poor boy.

        May 25, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
  8. Elliot

    China has been testing the reaction of the West with the current rash of mini-incursions. Their plan to dominate all of SE Asia either economically or militarily is approaching the scheduled completion date of the Fifty-year Plan. They are happily watching the lack of action in Ukraine as an indication that their motorized invasion will go unhindered by anyone. They are not worried abut financial sanctions as once they begin, they will seize control of all foreign owned industries which will allow them to build anything they need. Their near monopoly of rare earth minerals gives them terrific bargaining power as the rest of the world desperately needs them. Their foreign currency reserves are sufficient to flood the world markets and crash most economies. The odds makers will tell you that no Western nation will do anything but complain, letting China take what it wants in new territory.

    May 20, 2014 at 9:02 am | Reply
    • Johnson

      "Let China take what it wants in new territory" What do you mean? Do you know Vietnamese Coastguard and Fishermen have to deal with the armed ship and plane every day ? They use water cannon attack Vietnamese People, use armed ship rammed into Vietnamese Coastguard. They claim 80 percent of sea area and now they set up the illegal oil rig into Vietnam's territory.

      May 20, 2014 at 9:27 am | Reply
    • more powerful becomes more ugly

      very good comment! I think you have predicted, very accurately, what is going to transpire, over the next few decades. And the "West" can't really complain, because China has just learned how to play the "Western" game, to perfection, and is going to throw back a lot of ugliness (western behavior) into not only other Asian countries, but also to all Western countries. How could we give so much manufacturing might to China? What were we thinking?

      May 21, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Reply
    • acrII

      The WORLD did nothing when China invaded Tibet in 1949. This was the first CIA – Failure...

      The puppets in ASEAN will block any UNITED action against China: Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Singapore. Plus the Chinese business interest in Thailand, Phillippines, Indonesia, etc...

      China's 'Blue Water' Navy, nuclear umbrella and DF-21d system, will make any land/air aggression against China a suicide mission... Like the former USSR vers EU, it will be a Naval/nuclear exchange...

      May 26, 2014 at 5:20 am | Reply
  9. Johnson

    This reports is unreliable, such as " Many people are still missing" There were about 12 people injured, there was no one missing because they are protesters, most of them are not Vietnamese citizen. Vietnam Government is trying to help Chinese People come home safely, protect them from extremist!

    May 20, 2014 at 9:19 am | Reply
  10. chri§§y

    Lol Well there certainly are alot of conspiracy theories being tossed around in here today! Whats next...Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy really exist?

    May 20, 2014 at 9:26 am | Reply
  11. palintwit

    Sarah Palin supporters are the very definition of low information voters. They watch Fox, a proven source of misinformation. Studies show Fox watchers think they are well informed but are really factually deficient.

    May 20, 2014 at 9:46 am | Reply
  12. Nguoi Dan Saigon

    Vietnamese Communist Party nowadays is a part of Chinese Communist Party. Everything is already done between them. Whatever we see happening is just a play on the stage. The VC allows some Vietnamese to go out and protest. Their undercover polices blended in the crown and pushed for rioting. The next thing is that they are using the reason of rioting to stop every protest in the future. Gradually, everything calms down. It is done. Chinese will get what they want and Vietnamese people losing and losing again and again.

    May 20, 2014 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • Alan S

      Nguoi: Your comment that Vietnamese Communist Party nowadays is a part of Chinese Communist Party is a bit amusing, if you'll forgive me for saying so. Here in the United States, many people complain about the Democrat Party and Republican Party being essentially the same, different in name only, with the US people losing again and again. In Viet Nam you complain about the VN Communist Party and Chinese Communist Party being the same and the people losing.

      May 20, 2014 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Aurora

      You still live in the past with hatred of being defeated. Logic like yours will keep you being a loser for another 1000 years.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  13. candiduscorvus

    Chinese imperialism is not going over well, it would seem.

    May 20, 2014 at 11:31 am | Reply
    • LiveFree

      Well, I think the choose the wrong targets. If China claims the moon or mars, maybe, no one would object.

      May 26, 2014 at 2:08 am | Reply
  14. chri§§y

    Lol does it really matter? At least it isnt John Johnson lmao!

    May 20, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  15. KenrickV

    If Vietnam _ US cooperation = world peace (Asia)

    May 21, 2014 at 2:08 am | Reply
  16. more powerful becomes more ugly

    As more countries in Asia learn to play the "Western" game of GDP, corporate profits, greed and excess, they will undoubtedly become more ugly, obnoxious, mean, arrogant, aggressive and selfish. Not behavior for neither East nor West to be proud about! China will lead Asia, in this horrible behavior, no doubt, because they have the most money and therefore, power, to be obnoxious. But the other Asian Tigers will follow their bad example, without missing a step. Sickening and sad.............

    May 21, 2014 at 11:51 am | Reply
  17. chri§§y

    Boy aint THAT the trillion $ question @ more powerful becomes more ugly??? WTH were they thinkin? Cant say "we" cuz "we" had nothin to do with that hot mess!

    May 21, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Reply
    • more powerful becomes more ugly

      Thank you Ms. chrissy. Yes, the average American had no control over the "handing over, on a silver platter" of 50 million American jobs, to Asia, over the last 25 years. I think the Chinese, with a little help from Sam Walton, found the "chink in the armor" of the West. Use your cheap Chinese labor (due to the exchange rate) to make American designed products, in China, and ship them to America, for sale, at a price at which no American company making equivalent products, in America, can compete! End of story. That huge vacuum sound we all heard, was those 50 million jobs going to Asia!!!!!!!!!!!! And our politicians had to friggin' clue how to stop the outsourcing nightmare. Their huge paychecks, amazing benefits, and ridiculously comfortable existence, left them to cozy to care!!!!!!!!!!! By the time they started to even look into this serious problem, it was too late. The Chinese were laughing all the way to the bank...........😦

      May 21, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Reply
      • more powerful becomes more ugly

        sorry for the typo: I meant to say: And our politicians had no friggin' clue how to stop the outsourcing nightmare. Their huge paychecks, amazing benefits, and ridiculously comfortable existence, left them too cozy to care!

        May 21, 2014 at 11:56 pm |
      • Aurora

        All we need to do is to end MFN (Most Favor Nation) status to China that allows China products to import into US at very low import duty, while our products exported to China surfers high import duty. Both encourage US companies to move manufacturing plants to China to produce and import back to US at low import duty and sells their merchandise in China at no import duty. Then, the hefty profit were then stacked offshore without paying income tax.

        US is fighting a losing battle as long as China still enjoys MFN status.

        May 26, 2014 at 2:01 am |
  18. chri§§y

    Yup and in the words of Forest Gump...stupid is as stupid does! And it doesnt have to be too late. If congress would get off their collective butts and start doing the jobs they were elected to do...and are compensated quite well for, things could change. They need to get immagration reform resolved for starters. And then look into taxing the he!! out of these corporations that outsource, thereby employ child labor and/or forced labor ie: retainment work camps...it might go along way in bringing back jobs. Plus more incentives and tax breaks for small businesses. Ya just gotta know consessions have to be made, and we cant keep importing everything we use in this country, while having little to no exports! It doesnt make sense!

    May 22, 2014 at 12:06 am | Reply
    • Aurora

      All the congress need to do is to reverse Most Favor Nation status to China, outsource corporations wont have the import tax advantage for importing back to the US, they will have to bring jobs back to the US.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  19. chri§§y

    And yea i know, its much easier to create history, than to repair it but, when you make a mess, especially a hot mess, you gotta do alot of clean up!

    May 22, 2014 at 12:36 am | Reply
    • more powerful becomes more ugly

      and sometimes, unfortunately, chrissy, it becomes a humpty dumpty situation.......... all the kings horses and all the kings men, could not put humpty, together again........😦 that's when entire nations and even civilizations collapse........... and this has happened several times in history..........😦 maybe we should enlist the queen, and some of her women, like you, my dear chrissy........:) women have been stepping up to the plate, increasingly, in all walks of life, jobs, and leadership positions......... I feel sure they will do a better job than most men could ever do............. Angela Merkel is a great example..........

      May 22, 2014 at 1:57 am | Reply
  20. chri§§y

    And i sooooo agree with that lol!

    May 22, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
  21. chri§§y

    But not me....although i wouldnt object to working on THAT campaign lol.

    May 22, 2014 at 10:29 am | Reply
  22. Asians with more power means more ugly Asians

    Unfortunately, Asians with more economic power, means, more UGLY behavior, from Asians!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You see, my friends, when Asia got into the business of making all the products that the "world" just happens to want, and does indeed purchase, that gave Asia some power, and that will make them UGLY, in terms of their behavior towards the western world, their behavior towards each other (note China's actions regarding certain islands in the South China Sea!), and we in the West, need to be aware of this "new" behavior............... and figure out a strategy to contain the "bad" behavior................... Period................

    May 25, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Reply
    • Aurora

      Asians are often peaceful and hard-working people. Yet, some aggressive and power-hungry thugs will do anything and everything to oppress their own population and to fool them into serving their purposes. Getting rid of these thugs is the least expensive way to keep the peace.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  23. BE-VEGAN

    The Chinese must learn this. Confucius (Chinese social philosopher) said:

    To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.

    May 26, 2014 at 11:06 am | Reply
  24. Carnivores Forever

    Welcome to the new "danger zone" – the South China Sea.

    June 16, 2014 at 1:39 am | Reply
  25. 医疗电子设备

    医疗电子设备 http://www.gjyiliao.com/

    August 17, 2015 at 3:47 am | Reply
  26. Adolfo Horvat



    October 14, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Reply
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