STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's something you do not often see in a country as tightly controlled as Vietnam. Thousands of rioters have been trashing factories that they believed were owned by Chinese companies in Vietnam. The rioting follows China's move to plant an oil rig off Vietnam's coast. It's in the South China Sea in waters claimed by both countries. Chris Brummitt is in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. He's the Associated Press Southeast Asia news editor and he's on the line. Welcome to the program.
CHRIS BRUMMITT: Hi. Good morning.
INSKEEP: So how intense are these protests?
BRUMMITT: Well, there's been about 15 factories torched, according to one official, hundreds of others vandalized. It really was this mob rule descended on these industrial parks down in the south of the country near Ho Chi Minh City. I mean, as you mentioned, this is very rare for Vietnam. The government doesn't really allow protests, so something like this happens really shows the level of anger in the country, but also it does pose a challenge to authorities.
INSKEEP: Well, if you have thousands of Vietnamese hitting hundreds of different factories, that makes you wonder if these are state-sponsored protests in some way.
BRUMMITT: Indeed. That's the question that's been buzzing around. I think on Sunday there were protests around the country. These are clearly state-sanctioned in a way, you know, the state media covered them very enthusiastically and the atmosphere was very different at these protests compared to others, which occasionally pop up over the last two years.
If indeed they are sanctioning protests, violent protests, then it's a very different ball game altogether.
INSKEEP: Did the police stand aside?
BRUMMITT: Well, you know, there are 20,000 protestors, 300 police, so there's not much you can do, actually. Today, riot police have been deployed and they're guarding factories and I think there's been no reports of fresh violence today, but it took us 24 hours to get these reports in the first place, which is kind of stunning in this day and age you can have 15 factories on fire and no one knows about it.
INSKEEP: Now, I want to remind people of some basic facts here, that China moved this oil rig down into an area that was also claimed by Vietnam. Vietnamese navy vessels came out, ships on different sides rammed each other, the Chinese were believed to have fired water cannons, so a very strange and intense episode. But Vietnam and China have had disputes over this water for a long time.
What about this incident seems to have made it something worthy of protest in Vietnam on this scale?
BRUMMITT: Well, I think it's being seen as a game-changer. I mean Vietnam has been trying to sort these things out quietly on a party to party level, and then suddenly almost out of nowhere, China plunks this big rig right in the economic zone, the continental shelf of what Vietnam regards as it's(ph). And I think it's the first time they've actually drilled for oil in this area so it's seen as a significant escalation in China's, you know, it's policy of gradually sneaking a bit here, sneaking a bit there.
And then the region has to accept the newspaper's quote, so I think for Vietnam, they want to make very clear this is a line in the sand that China has definitely crossed.
INSKEEP: The Philippines, of course, are also involved in a dispute with China over nearby waters in the South China Sea and the Philippines are now making accusations the Chinese are, what, building an airbase in the Spratly Islands, is that correct?
BRUMMITT: Well, it's that they've spotted dredging going on, which could be one they turn into an airstrip, eventually. A military airstrip in the middle of the South China Sea would also change the military and the geopolitical landscape quite significantly.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is in these islands, many of which are barely above water or a little below and the Chinese seem to be dredging up and then piling up soil in some way to create and island.
BRUMMITT: That's right. Or a big military base. Essentially, they're solidifying their claim to these islands. They also had their own little cat and mouse game on the high seas about a month ago with a Chinese vessel trying to ram one of their supply ships. So what we're seeing is, you know, Chinese assertiveness being met by the Philippines and Vietnam with potentially unpredictable consequences.
INSKEEP: Now, I should mention China and Vietnam share a land border. They have fought wars in the past. Is anybody worried about this thing getting out of hand?
BRUMMITT: Yes. I think they are. I think most people think that cool heads will have to prevail, given the economic ties between the two nations, that someone could do something crazy, there could be a response and before you know it, you could have a very intense shooting incident on the high seas.
INSKEEP: Chris Brummit is the Associated Press Southeast Asia news editor. Thanks very much for joining us.
BRUMMITT: Any time, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.