HANOI, Vietnam -- Vietnamese anger toward China is running at its highest level in years after Beijing deployed an oil rig in disputed waters. That's posing a tricky question for Vietnam's leaders: To what extent should they allow public protests that could morph into those against their own authoritarian rule?
At one level, the ruling Communist Party would like to harness the anger on the street to amplify its own indignation against China and garner international sympathy as naval ships from both countries engage in a tense standoff near the rig off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
But Vietnam's government instinctively distrusts public gatherings of any sort, much less ones that risk posing a threat to public order. And they also know that members of the country's dissident movement are firmly embedded inside the anti-China one, and have used the issue to mobilize support in the past.
On Saturday, around 100 people protested outside the Chinese Consulate in the country's commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, watched on by a large contingent of security officers. Dissident groups have called for larger demonstrations today in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi, the capital.
The two Asian nations have a history of conflict going back 1,000 years, and the streets of Vietnam's cities are named after heroes in those fights. In the more recent past, the navies have twice had deadly engagements in the South China Sea. There was a brief but bloody border war in 1979. All have a created a deep well of mistrust toward China among ordinary Vietnamese.
Yet the two countries share a communist ideology and close economic ties, making the China-Vietnam relationship highly sensitive topic. The latest round of tension -- the worst since 1988, when 64 Vietnamese sailors were killed in a clash with the Chinese navy -- had led to fresh and awkward questions over that relationship, a normally taboo topic in the state-controlled media.
"It's time for the Communist Party of Vietnam to reconsider all its policy toward Beijing ... Vietnam should immediately abandon Beijing as an economic and a political model," Huy Duc, one of Vietnam's best known bloggers, wrote in a recent post. "Hopefully, the drilling rig 981 incident will awaken the Communist Party of Vietnam to be on the side of the people and drive out the Beijing expansionists."
A statement widely circulated on Facebook and dissident blogs called for protests this morning in Hanoi outside the Chinese Embassy and a Chinese cultural center in Ho Chi Minh City. In past years, authorities have only allowed anti-China demonstrators to walk around a lake in downtown Hanoi.
The last time there was a flare-up in the South China Sea in 2011, anti-Chinese demonstrations lasted weeks, and some protesters voiced slogans against the government. Authorities used force to break them up.
Vietnam's first response to the rig's deployment close to the Paracel Islands was to send ships to try and stop the rig from starting drilling, and demand Beijing withdraw. Each side accuses the other of ramming their boats. China has said it is staying put and called on Vietnam to pull back its ships.
Vietnam now finds itself pleading its case internationally but without any kind of solid alliance with a powerful country that might make China listen more carefully. It can't afford to do anything that would severely rupture ties with Beijing because it is the country's largest trading partner.
Experts say the incident might push Vietnam closer to the Philippines, which also is engaged in territorial disputes with China, or toward the United States, which wants closer ties with Vietnam as part of its efforts to counter Chinese influence in Asia.
Raising the stakes in its own confrontation with China, the Philippines said Saturday that it had imprisoned 11 Chinese fishermen who were caught with endangered sea turtles in a part of the South China Sea that is claimed by both nations.
The fishermen were seized Tuesday by the Philippine National Police, who found the 350 marine turtles after intercepting the fishing boat off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
The New York Times contributed.