HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnam's prime minister sent a text message to millions of citizens urging them to act in defense of the country's sovereignty following China's deployment of on oil rig in disputed waters, but said that "bad elements" shouldn't be allowed to engage in violence.
The message, sent late Thursday and Friday to subscribers via major state-owned cellphone operators, didn't directly condemn the riots that have broken out this week following China's decision to deploy the rig off the coast of central Vietnam on May 1. Vietnamese patrol ships sent to disrupt the rig are currently locked in a tense standoff with Chinese ships guarding it.
Anti-China protests that started peacefully have ended in violence and vandalism, with 400 factories suspected of having links with China destroyed or damaged by mobs. One Chinese worker was killed and scores more injured at a huge Taiwanese steel mill that was overrun by a 1,000-strong crowd.
"The prime minister requests and calls on every Vietnamese to boost their patriotism to defend the fatherland's sacred sovereignty with actions in line with the law," the text message said. "Bad elements should not be allowed to instigate extremist actions that harm the interests and image of the country."
There were no reports of any new violence or protests on Friday.
Vietnam's authoritarian leaders typically clamp down on public protests of any sort, but have allowed them this time. Preventing people from demonstrating would have given fuel to domestic critics of the government who already accuse it of being soft on Beijing.
The government is also able to use the nationalist sentiment of its people to amplify its protests to Beijing. But violence that harms foreign investment and risks spinning out of control is unlikely to fit into this strategy, and the government will attempt to ensure that it doesn't break out again, most analysts say.
Reporters and television stations have been permitted to cover the peaceful protests, something highly unusual and a clear sign of state sanction. But the violence and vandalism have been subject to a media blackout.
Neither China nor Vietnam has shown any sign of compromise.
Vietnam believes it has international opinion on its side, and took a boatload of foreign journalists this week to waters close to the rig to ensure maximum media coverage. Beijing, which insists it has done nothing wrong and says it won't withdraw the rig, reacted angrily.
"It is clear that the aim of the Vietnamese side is to escalate the situation and create tension, or in other words, to generate a media hype and 'put up a show' in front of the international audience," the director general of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Ocean and Boundary Affairs, Ouyang Yujing, said in Beijing.
China and Vietnam have tussled for years over competing territorial claims, as have the Philippines and China. But Beijing's desire for oil and gas, and its growing economic and military might, have seen it take an increasingly assertive stance to its claims in the sea, triggering increased tensions and incidents between it and claimant states.
The anti-China violence on the streets is only inflaming the relationship further.
China said its foreign minister, Wang Yi, called Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on Thursday and expressed Beijing's "strong condemnation and stern protest" over the violence against Chinese and other foreign nationals and businesses.
"Vietnam has an inescapable responsibility for the actions of the lawless elements who attacked Chinese businesses and individuals," Wang said.
The U.S. doesn't take a side in the disputes, but shares many of the concerns of Vietnam and the Philippines about China. It is seeking closer economic and military ties with both nations. It has described China's deployment of the rig as "provocative."
In Washington, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said after a meeting Thursday with his Chinese counterpart that in a world where information moves so fast, "issues afloat quickly become issues ashore as we've seen today in Vietnam."
The chief of the General Staff of China's People's Liberation Army, Gen. Fang Fenghui, blamed Vietnam for the off-shore standoff, asserting that China was operating in its own territorial waters. He vowed that China would continue its oil drilling and would not allow Vietnam to disrupt it.
Associated Press writer Jack Chang in Beijing contributed to this report.