Vietnam’s turmoil: What caused rioters to level foreign-owned plants?

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The riots and attacks in Vietnam on foreign-owned plants, ostensibly in response to China’s having installed a drilling rig in waters of the South China Sea that both countries claim, is a curious development.

The background is that after some on-the-seas sparring between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces around the rig, followed by the absence of other Asian nations’ support for Vietnam’s position, violent crowds damaged or destroyed scores of factories in southern Vietnam, most of which are owned by Taiwanese or South Korean companies, along with some owned by Chinese firms.

China and Vietnam fought a brief but bitter border war in 1979 and much of Vietnam’s history, apart from the French colonial period and its war with the United States, has been an effort to keep from being dominated by China, its huge neighbor.

Even so, the factory attacks raise difficult questions. One is whether the destruction, which led to the detention of more than 400 Vietnamese, was inspired by the Hanoi government or else elements seeking to protest the plight of workers (independent unions are banned). Another is whether the damage will discourage future investment in Vietnam, when its economic growth has been partly due to foreign manufacturers — the Chinese and others — locating plants there.

Regardless of the answers, it is worth remembering that Vietnam is still a totalitarian, Communist-run state where nothing much happens without government prompting. Nevertheless, Vietnam’s government has an opposition, one that may have taken the occasion of disorder, whatever its source, to run loose and show its strength and discontent.

The United States has called for dialogue between China and Vietnam on the territorial dispute. It has also said the rules of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea should prevail in the quarrel. The irony is that the United States itself has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, even after 20 years.

The complexity of this Southeast Asian problem, including its internal Vietnamese aspects, should be a caution to the United States to stay out of it.

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