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Tensions Remain High in Vietnam Following Attacks on Foreign Factories

Tensions remain high in southern Vietnam after thousands of people rampaged through foreign-owned factories to protest a Chinese oil rig in waters of the South China Sea.

In southern Binh Duong province, thousands of workers walked off their jobs late Tuesday and took part in mass anti-China rallies. Later, mobs torched and looted more than a dozen factories, including some owned by Korean and Taiwanese firms.

Many factories in the area remained closed Wednesday, as riot police tried to regain control of the situation. Social media postings say there have been incidents in other provinces, but those reports cannot be confirmed.

Tsai Wan-chen, president of the Taiwanese Businessmen Association in Binh Duong, Vietnam says the situation is still volatile, despite reports of police making more than 200 arrests.

“The protests were still going on Wednesday evening; more factories were looted and burned down. Most Taiwanese businessmen are seeking shelter in nearby hotels. Chinese businessmen have all left since Tuesday. Only some Taiwanese, Singaporeans and Korean businessmen are still in Binh Duong," said Wan-chen.

She added that she is shocked by how things have gone because her business had a good relationship with the local community.

A staff member of a hospital close to the area where some of the most violent demonstrations took place said in an interview with VOA's Vietnamese service he believes that among the demonstrators is a core of bad elements, paid by an unknown party to provoke the rampage.

“I really do not see any move that would allow me to characterize participants as genuine demonstrators. From personal observations, I can say that none of these demonstrations are official or genuine, instead they probably started with bad intentions," he said.

There is no way to confirm his claim.

In Taipei Wednesday, Taiwan's foreign ministry summoned Vietnam's representative to the island to demand that Hanoi restore order and ensure the safety of Taiwanese citizens.

China has issued a travel advisory for its citizens in Vietnam, and a spokeswoman this week said Beijing is closely watching the situation.

Beijing last month moved the state-run oil rig to an area near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, within what Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone.

Shen Shishun, professor at Haikou Economic Institute in China, says Beijing is not to blame for the current crisis.

“Beijing does not want the protest to get worse. China and Vietnam had both agreed that in order to resolve the South China Sea dispute, both sides need to stay calm and exercise restraint. This time the Vietnamese had made some unwise decisions," said Shishun.

But Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, says China has initiated a major escalation in the maritime dispute.

"China in the past has always justified its actions as reacting to a provocation. And this seems to be the first incident that China has initiated a provocation. And not only that, but the magnitude and scale. Not only the oil rig, but the 80 vessels, including People's Liberation Army Navy vessels, marks in fact a major escalation and a major challenge to Southeast Asian security," said Thayer.

Chinese and Vietnamese ships have since clashed and sprayed water cannons at each other, raising fears of an all-out military clash.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin and Vietnamese services.