National pride can drive countries and people to do irrational things. Last week’s anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, which killed at least 20 people and resulted in the destruction of some 15 foreign-owned factories, was a particularly ugly face of nationalism that has been sweeping parts of East Asia in recent years. On the face of it, the riots were a fall-out of the dispute that had been brewing between Beijing and Hanoi over the latter’s decision to deploy an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The two countries have had a dispute over the islands for several decades now. But there is more to the latest flare-up than territorial claims over maritime areas supposed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. Small and sometimes uninhabited islands in the South and the East China Sea have been turned into theatres of jingoism by countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The contests are primarily regional, but these often tend to involve big powers as well, especially the United States of America. All this is dangerous stuff for not only the region’s security but also for its economy. The riots in Vietnam, during which factories owned by South Korean and Taiwanese firms were also set ablaze, would make foreign investors wary about their plans for the region.
However, the primary responsibility for the region’s security and economic integration rests with Beijing. The rise of China as an economic and military power has made smaller countries in the area nervous about its plans. Given the history of hostility between the two communist countries, Beijing could not have been unaware of the possible Vietnamese reaction to its decision to deploy the oil rig in the disputed waters. If Beijing had underestimated Vietnam’s response, the riots must be taken as a singular failure of Chinese statecraft. It is more likely, though, that China had anticipated the outrage that its action would cause in Vietnam and used the deployment of the rig in order to force its claim overt the disputed areas. Such unilateral actions can only isolate Beijing further from not only its neighbours but also the international community. Such shows of power can only make the world sceptical of China’s claim that its rise is “peaceful”. Ironically, both China and Vietnam use nationalism in order to gain legitimacy for their communist regimes. But it is a dangerous ploy for any nation to depend on.