HANOI, Vietnam – Two Chinese passenger ships arrived at a Vietnamese port Monday to evacuate Chinese workers following deadly rioting last week, officials said, a dramatic maneuver from Beijing that intensifies pressure on Hanoi as the two countries jostle over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The boats with a capacity to carry 1,000 passengers each arrived at Vung Ang port early Monday morning, but didn't immediately dock, said Thai Tran Linh, a government official in Ha Tinh. He said officials were still examining the paperwork of the ships, which left China's Hainan Island on Sunday.
Vung Ang port is part of a large, under-construction Taiwanese steel mill complex 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Hanoi that was overrun by an anti-China mob last week. Two Chinese workers were killed and 140 injured in the attack, which also left parts of the facility on fire. Linh said it employed around 3,000 Chinese workers.
There has been no violence or protests since last Thursday, and Chinese people have been able to leave the country independently with no impediments since then.
The nationwide unrest, the worst to hit in Vietnam years, followed Beijing's deployment of a large oil rig in a patch of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam. Both nations have sent ships to the waters that are now locked in a tense standoff, raising fears of a possible conflict.
While noting that countries are obligated to help their citizens, Johnathan London, a Vietnam expert at Hong Kong's City University, said sending ships "broadcasts to the world a sense that China is a victim, creates an image of a destabilized Vietnam (and) sends ominous signals and veiled threats of punitive action."
"This maneuver might be perceived as indicating that Xi Jingpin is more interested in deepening rather than alleviating the prevailing sense of crisis which, if true, does not bode well for those hoping for de-escalation and newly-imaginative attempts at conflict resolution," he wrote in an email.
Around 400 other factories around the country were damaged or destroyed in mob violence, most in industrial parks close to southern Ho Chi Minh City. Many factories were not Chinese-run but Taiwanese or from elsewhere in Asia, apparently targeted mistakenly or by gangs intent on looting.
Vietnam's government, furious at China's positioning of the rig, initially allowed street protests, a rarity in the authoritarian country. But since the rioting they have cracked down, aware that the violence threatened the country's reputation as a safe and cheap destination for foreign manufacturers to establish.