HANOI, Vietnam — Hundreds of Vietnamese launched a third week of protests against China on Sunday amid escalating tensions in disputed waters of the South China Sea, where both countries recently conducted live-fire military drills.
About 300 people gathered near the Chinese Embassy in the capital, Hanoi, and marched through the streets, yelling “Down with China!” and demanding that their powerful northern neighbor stay out of Vietnam’s territory. Crowds also gathered in southern Ho Chi Minh City.
“We will fight for our country if the nation needs us,” said student Nguyen Manh Ha, 20. “Not only me, but all Vietnamese people will die to protect our territory.”
Protests are extremely rare in Vietnam and are typically quashed quickly by security forces, but Hanoi has allowed the demonstrations to go on for the past three Sundays amid tight security. At one point, the crowd, waving Vietnamese flags, stopped at a department store and shouted “Boycott Chinese products!”
“I’m here today to protect my country from an invading China,” said Nguyen Long, 82, who fought in a short, bloody land border war with China in 1979. “I’m sure those in the embassy are listening to us shouting ‘Down with China!”‘
Relations between the communist countries hit a low point after two incidents in the past month involving clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese boats in the South China Sea.
Vietnam accuses Chinese vessels of hindering oil exploration surveys in an area 200 nautical miles off its central coast that it claims as its economic exclusive zone. China says Vietnam illegally entered its waters near the disputed Spratly islands and endangered Chinese fishermen.
The two sides have a long history of exchanging diplomatic jabs over maritime incidents, mainly involving areas around the believed resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed all or in part by Vietnam, China and several other Asian countries. But the current spat has become much more hostile.
Vietnam held live-fire naval exercises off its central coast last Monday — the same day the government issued an order outlining who would be exempt from a military draft. On Friday, China announced it had also recently held three days and nights of drills in the South China Sea, though it did not give exact dates.
The United States has said the South China Sea, home to key shipping lanes, is in its national interest. China says territorial disputes should be handled one-on-one, but Vietnam has said it welcomes foreign assistance to maintain regional peace and stability.
The U.S. and Vietnam issued a joint statement Friday following an annual defense dialogue, with Washington saying the recent “troubling” incidents raise concerns about maritime security.