Territorial Disputes and ‘State-Encouraged Protests

Last month, a series of protests erupted across Vietnam against the Chinese deployment of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, a disputed territory of the South China Sea. Three nations—China, Taiwan, and Vietnam—have claimed sovereignty over the archipelago since the 20th century. In a surprise turn, the Vietnamese government, which generally forbids demonstrations, allowed protests at the beginning, enabling them to spread from the capital Hanoi to Ho Chi Minch City and increase in size and intensity. The protests led to violence as protestors targeted Chinese and Taiwanese nationals and their businesses. Looting, arson, vandalism, injuries, and death forced China and Taiwan to order the evacuation of their citizens.[1]

Similar protests have occurred in the Philippines in 2012-2013, although they did not escalate to the level of violence in Vietnam. Maritime tensions between Philippines and China began when Philippine Navy surveillance plane detected Chinese fishing vessels docked at the waters of Scarborough shoal (a.k.a., “Democracy Reef”), another disputed territory.[2] Within days, protests occurred outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila and swelled and moved in cyberspace, as hackers in both countries defaced a number of government and university websites, claiming, “Scarborough Shoal is OURS!”[3] As Filipino politicians joined the protests and called for the boycott of Chinese-made goods, China closed its visa officers in Manila over safety concerns.

Although the degree of violence is different, the protests in Vietnam and the Philippines share many similarities. First, the territorial disputes have generated fervent nationalism. To protesters, the issues go beyond questions of ownership of resource-rich islands in South China Sea. The Vietnamese, for instance, see China’s territorial claims as a continuation of Chinese domination in their country, which they fought against in 1979 and historically for over a millennium. Similarly, Filipinos feel contempt over the fact that the ethnic Chinese, which comprise one percent of the population, control 60 percent of the economy. In this regard, the Paracel Islands and Scarborogh Shoal are pivots for the continued discursive construction of China as an imperial power in Southeast Asia.

Second, the protests draw on similar frames and promoted alliances and solidarity between Vietnam and the Philippines. “China as a rising bully” is a master frame in the cycle of protests that social movements have successfully adopted and deployed in their campaigns and connected other issues together, such as China’s trade restrictions over Philippine commodities and the abuse of Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong. Popular calls and slogans include “Vietnam-Philippines join hands to kick off China,” “China Stop Bullying Vietnam and the Philippines,” “China, Stop the Invasion! Back Off!” An interesting question is to what extent this master frame can facilitate the formation of a solidarity network.

Lastly, both Philippine and Vietnamese governments indirectly supported the protests, as they initially extolled what they regard as acts of patriotism against an “imperial power” or “bully.” This move is not surprising as Southeast Asian governments are forging alliances and struggling to find a diplomatic solution to the disputes. States could use the protests as leverage should a case be made before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in the United Nations or should other nations such as the United States intervene. At the same time, the state is quick to condone, dissociate itself from, and even crush the protests once they “turn into riots.” Do states embroiled in territorial disputes welcome nationalistic protests only to the extent that they do not make the governments appear weak in the international arena? Protests of this nature thus make a compelling case in interrogating the relationship between states and social movements in geopolitical transformations.

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