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 (169 Responses)
  1. rupert

    Wow. A lot has changed in 40 years. These two used to be on the same side. Patton had to be stopped as he wanted to keep moving forward near chi na.
    War is doubtful. It would be like Russia versus Ukraine.
    No contest. But how I love Asian food. Mixed veget ables with beef. And add those noodles.
    Whoa! Beef & brocoli, orange chicken.

    May 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
    • Eri

      Diiference here, Vietnam has fought china many times. Vietnam has fought Great Han of Mongolia, fought the French and fought the USA.

      May 19, 2014 at 9:13 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        In the past it was in Indonesia that we saw anti-Chinese riots. The example in Vietnam highlights anti-Chinese sentiments in parts of South Asia, that were kept below the surface. Ethnic Chinese minorities tend to be more successful and are often resented by the indigenous, like the Jewish people in Europe. With an economically strong and militarily assertive China, the Chinese minorities bear the brunt of China's foreign policies.

        May 20, 2014 at 7:26 am |
      • Aurora

        jvh- This riot has nothing to do with Chinese success in VN. Since 1979 border conflict with China, most rich Chinese left VN. Those left are poor or middle income Chinese people. So, this riot is not driven by economic jealousy.

        In fact, the recent riot is the result of anger that Vietnam population has endured for 10 years since China claimed the 9-dash in 2004. Since the claim announced, China coastguard has acted like the new government-sponsored pirates in SCS, ramming, robbing, extorting unarmed poor VN fishermen whenever they find non-chinese fishing boats in SCS, even within VN EEZ. VN govenrment decided not to publicize them to preserve friendly relationship with China, yet these events have leaked to the Internet, and everyone knows it. When VN government decided to stand up to China rig as we have seen, the population exploded to the degree that even VN government failed to imagine.

        Google "Vietnam fishing boat attacked", add "youtube" for video.

        May 25, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
  2. chri§§y

    Tensions are building simply because China is fueled by GREED! They want something that isnt theirs and they dont care what or who they hurt to get it!

    May 19, 2014 at 2:49 pm |
    • Aurora

      They want to restore their status as Middle Kingdom in Asia. Surrounding countries have to obey or else.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:45 pm |
  3. stuart

    During that Viet nam conflict, China frowned on the U.S.
    Ironic, now they are having disagreements . Of course china wants lots of territory.
    I like Asian rice more than noodles rupert.

    May 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm |
  4. chri§§y

    Lol Mongolian beef is the best! Then sesame chicken!

    May 19, 2014 at 2:51 pm |
  5. stuart

    Of course chrissy. GREED.
    Besides, how much foreign aid do they give

    May 19, 2014 at 2:53 pm |
    • Aurora

      Foreign aid from China comes with an interest and/or resource in the cheap.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  6. stuart

    Mongolian beef. Mmmmm

    May 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm |
  7. rupert

    Ok. Time to go to
    HOUSE OF CHINA.. $12 bucks. All u can eat.

    May 19, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  8. 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 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
    • U Suk Dong

      How's the weather in Bejing John?

      May 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm |
    • alf564

      LMAO...so what you are saying is that now it is Russia and China's turn ???

      May 19, 2014 at 6:04 pm |
    • Danny California

      John Smith, change your name to bing beng bong! your comments are not from an American or you are just an idiotic traitor!

      May 19, 2014 at 6:48 pm |
      • Xijinpin Suqs U

        Actually, John is a name of a monkey that the Chinese PLA trained it how to use a computer.

        May 19, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
    • photobyvtran


      If my memory serves me right, the US still has 50 States.

      May 19, 2014 at 7:48 pm |
    • Dong Suqs U

      My monkey government said that Beijing's weather was going to be just like Hawaii.

      May 19, 2014 at 8:06 pm |
  9. chri§§y

    Well actually @ stuart China has bailed out the US if you wanta get technical!

    May 19, 2014 at 4:32 pm |
    • alf564

      Only because they loaned us the money so the democrats can continue spending .... makes the chinese rich !

      May 19, 2014 at 6:11 pm |
    • Ken

      How did China bail the US out?

      May 19, 2014 at 7:39 pm |
  10. kevin d.

    It's about time the current government of Vietnam stand up to this bullishness! A lot of this issue has to do with the Vietnam government acting as puppets to China. War is never good, but when it comes to one's homeland, it's well worth it, especially to help the Chinese in their population problems. China also having problems in Africa too, being attack by locals.

    May 19, 2014 at 4:49 pm |
    • Aurora

      In the past, there are elements in VN government who pro-China. Ex-general secretary Le Kha Phieu is one of them. Ex-Premier Pham Van Dong is another. There have been a struggle between those pro-china and those do not (not necessarily pro-western). It appears that China bully has weaken the pro-China faction's position. If an alliance with US is engaged now, the pro-China faction will be done. Path to democracy is possible but expect to be slow and well controlled to avoid political chaos. If that happens, US must be very delicate and smart in this relationship, not to put VN government in a position that it would be criticized as a puppet of US.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:01 pm |
  11. tychi

    Why are tensions building in Asia? Let me see ... one word .... China. They now have power and want to use it.

    May 19, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
    • Barasheit

      They are building everywhere because the US power is fading and we have a wimp in office.

      May 19, 2014 at 8:51 pm |
  12. 1776usa2016

    China, they have people and they want to feed them.


    May 19, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
  13. alf564

    Hey, the chinese are going after everything and every little island in the pacific. They want it and they WILL TAKE IT!! Just what you can and will do when you are the BIG dog in the dog park !!! IT IS YOURS !!!

    May 19, 2014 at 6:03 pm |
  14. Fuc

    What vile people the Chinese are.

    May 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm |
  15. chri§§y

    Isnt that what i said @ alf564? A bailout is a bailout...however...it WASNT so the Democrats can keep spending! It was so the Democrats can PAY the HIDDEN costs of two UNNECCESSARY wars by GWB who was REPUBLICAN!

    May 19, 2014 at 6:22 pm |
  16. rick

    Seems like there is always some type of what used to be called "posturing" now tension in the far east countries. History is full of invasions.. Skirmishes.. And small to large wars for what most cant see the usefull or needed in. Aggressive actions between several of the far east goes thru out history for several hundred years. I have seen personaly the animosity shown between people and countries in that area of world. Always for some gain of a small section or tiny island of little importance to the better of the inhabitants. If it is ever learned to actualy combine efforts and wants. Many will actualy benefit. Like a multi-national sea rescue group? Search group? Wishfull thinking im sure. But hopfully a idea that might come true. Effort in that direction would be much more lasting and important than possesion of a obscure spot in middle of nowhere.. Make it usefull and needed to many..

    May 19, 2014 at 6:28 pm |
  17. Peter

    I blame the Chinese Government and NOT the Chinese.
    There is a big difference there.

    May 19, 2014 at 6:37 pm |
    • Aurora

      Yep! Most Chinese does not give a sh... what their gov does. Just some red-butt monkeys swinging from tree to tree causing problems.

      May 26, 2014 at 1:34 am |
  18. rick

    and have noticed that on every comment sections. Here and was banned from yahoo answers for extreemly false accusations/comments about so extreemly inflated and totaly false claims of deaths and displacement of a war from long ago its actualy funny. There was NO 1million killed and 4million displaced. I know for a fact. Because I WAS ACTUALY THERE during the time in question. Impossible.. Running to fast BACKWARDS to hide to have had that many casualties..!

    May 19, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
  19. Tyler

    Which country(ies) would like to volunteer and wage war with this bully? China represents greed and greed won't stop after Vietnam. I'm sure the Chinese would want to conquer the world before 2020. The USA should give the world a demo of their Nukes.

    May 19, 2014 at 6:51 pm |
    • kevin

      go back to your tree, monkey

      May 19, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
      • Tyler

        I'm a white monkey...and you must be a chinaman? I believe your country is in the wrong so it's wise for you and your commies to smarten up and do the right thing. "Do the right thing...you save a penny here you save a penny there" 😉

        May 19, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
  20. Tee Ed's

    Someone forgot the soviet Russians shot down a packed Korean air 747 over sakhalin

    May 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm |
  21. KG

    Rupert it was McArther who was fighting in the Korean War not Patton he was the one who got to close to China

    May 19, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
    • rupert

      That's right. Forgot. McArthur was in the pacific, Patton in Europe. Duhhh on me. Thx KG.

      May 19, 2014 at 7:23 pm |
  22. china dum

    well where ever had flies there are chinese

    May 19, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
  23. Johnson

    Do not trust China

    May 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
  24. lisa

    Please pray for Vietnam. They are in trouble and I don't see how this could end up peacefully.

    May 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
    • Aurora

      Not to worry. VN is a smart player. China knows VN is not easy to swallow. Actually, none ASEAN country is easy to swallow. They all have thick jungles to cover them for a long fight. China can dominate at sea, but not on land.

      May 26, 2014 at 1:39 am |
  25. chri§§y

    @ Ken, google how much money China loaned the US since the recession began. Thats a bailout the same as was given to the auto industry. And trust me i dont like it anymore than anyone else...but it was done all the same.

    May 19, 2014 at 8:27 pm |
  26. Bob

    So what your telling me is that china is stupid. They have the USA money and can't really do to much but saber rattle because going to far means no money back .Thats awesome! I wonder how people think sometimes . If china is to fight with us or our buddies it's the same as shooting yourself in the foot . The need the exports and the cash they get from us on loans. . It's as simple as turning off the faucet in the end . Then what no money and the country's black banking sectors bull crud and it down hill fast for them .the books are so cooked in china it's a wonder it haven't imploded yet .the cracks are starting to show . When a nation starts to land grab it is need of something to bluster it's economy or hold hostage as a distraction. . This is always the case .

    May 19, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
    • Bob

      Excuse the errors typing on the go .

      May 19, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
    • Aurora

      Yep! The longer they play with SCS 9-dash claim, the more dirt got on their face. China will never succeed at acquiring international water as their own pond.

      May 26, 2014 at 1:45 am |
  27. chri§§y

    And it was done by China owning our debt in order to keep the value of the US dollar where it is. Actually this procedure began with Nixon but its increased considerably in the past several years to pay for the Iraq war. 2.4 trillion.

    May 19, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
  28. chri§§y

    Lol not quite how it works @ Bob! If they call in their debt the US will be destroyed. Our dollar will be worth nothing and since most everything we use is exported from China we will be right where we were when the pilgrims arrived. The US was the stupid ones!

    May 19, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
  29. chri§§y

    Now ya wanta guess who we have to thank for most of this? And it isnt the POTUS! Good old Corporate America...oh and the useless clowns in Congress! The ones that approve ALL taxes and expenditures! Ya might wanta think about all that when voting time comes...and you sure should do your duty as a citizen and VOTE!!!

    May 19, 2014 at 8:50 pm |
  30. chri§§y

    Lolol a wimp huh? If he were a wimp he wouldnt have ran for a 2nd term of ABUSE and RIDICULE! A lesser man woulda said s c r e w this sh!t and gave up!

    May 19, 2014 at 8:57 pm |
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