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Territorial dispute with China boils over in Vietnam

May 14, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Tensions between China and Vietnam reached a fever pitch today, as thousands of protesters in Vietnam went on a rampage over Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Clouds of smoke rose skyward over foreign-owned factories near Ho Chi Minh City today, casualties in an escalating territorial struggle with China. Rioters targeted industrial sites they believed were Chinese-run, but a provincial official said some were actually Taiwanese or South Korean-owned.

The mobs torched at least 15 plants. Scores more were looted or vandalized. In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded action to calm the situation.

HUA CHUNYING, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, China (through interpreter): China is seriously concerned with these incidents. The Foreign Ministry has called in the Vietnamese ambassador to China and lodged a solemn demand for Vietnam to take immediate and effective measures to stop and punish the illegal activities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The protests, rarely allowed in Vietnam, began peacefully enough several days ago, but officials claimed today they’d been hijacked by extremists. They said 440 people were detained.

Vietnamese anger flared after the Chinese began operating an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. They’re controlled by China, but claimed by Hanoi.

Both sides have accused the other of intentionally ramming their vessels. Chinese ships also fired water cannon at Vietnamese crews. Today, the Vietnamese coast guard claimed Chinese ships had once again blocked attempts to reach the rig.

COL. PHAN DUY CUONG, Vietnamese Coast Guard Tactical Assistance (through interpreter): Today, we got as close as 12 kilometers to the oil rig, and Chinese forces reacted with many ships and followed us closely. At one point, five Chinese ships surrounded one of ours to stop us from getting close to the oil rig that is operating illegally in our territories.

JUDY WOODRUFF: China has rejected Vietnam’s complaints and defended its own actions. Again, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman:

HUA CHUNYING (through interpreter): I think it’s quite obvious who is the provoker, who is the victim, who is trying to calm the situation, and who is escalating tension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, the White House has criticized China’s actions in the territorial dispute. But spokesman Jay Carney appealed today for calm on both sides.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: These are disputes that need to be resolved through dialogue, not through intimidation. And we are not a party to the specific disputes, but we, again, urge dialogue and their resolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: China is also involved in territorial disputes with the Philippines and Japan.