(CNSNews.com) – China, which frequently is accused of hacking Western government and corporate Web sites, may be getting a taste of its own medicine.
In recent days, Vietnamese hackers uploaded messages on official Chinese sites, highlighting Vietnam’s longstanding claim to disputed oil-rich islands in the South China Sea.
They featured an image of a rifle-toting Vietnamese Navy sailor in front of a monument that stands on one of the Vietnam-controlled Spratly islands, against a backdrop of a map of the South China Sea. A slogan, in English and Vietnamese, states that the “Paracel islands and Spratly islands belong to Vietnam.”
The message also said that the people of Vietnam were “willing to sacrifice to protect the sea, sky and country.”
Typical of the Chinese sites hacked over several days, according to Vietnamese activists and Asian online discussion groups, were those belonging to provincial government entities such as an economic development zone in Zhejiang province, an agricultural bureau in Jiansu province and an investment agency in Guangzhou province.
China consistently denies accusations that it carries out or tolerates online attacks. Google reported last week that hackers in China had targeted hundreds of Gmail accounts, of Chinese political activists as well as U.S. government and military officials.
It’s not clear whether the anti-China hacking originated from within Vietnam, a country where the Internet is usually tightly controlled by the communist government, and where dozens of cyber dissidents and bloggers are imprisoned for posting information online deemed subversive by the regime.
Trung Doan, a Vietnamese community leader in Australia, doubted the regime was involved in, or would encourage, the hacking.
“This hacking will plant in the mind of thousands of capable Vietnamese Internet users the idea that they can hack Web sites and other Internet assets of the Vietnamese regime itself, and that idea – that one can attack the regime – is dangerous to the regime’s survival,” he told CNSNews.com Monday.
“The regime survives on absolute control and fear, any weakening of control and fear weakens their survival,” Trung added. “That fear outweighs all other potential benefits of complicity.”
In another sign of growing Vietnamese sentiment over the territorial dispute, anti-China protest marches took place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at the weekend, organized via Facebook and other Internet sites.
Although the rare protests went ahead, Trung said the regime was clearly not happy about them. Some prominent dissidents had been prevented from attending, while at the Hanoi rally, a naval general had ordered the crowd to go home – without success.
Trung said he had told the protestors, “You should trust the government to both oppose the Chinese actions and at the same time maintain a good [bilateral] relationship.”
Students at a Saigon university were ordered not to attend the protest, on pain of expulsion. Similar prohibitions had likely been declared at many of the “thousands of entities under Communist Party control,” he said.
Trung said any benefit the government may see in the protests would be trumped by the need for “self-preservation.”
“Once people have tasted people-power, they become more confident and the regime's security guards become less self-confident,” he said. “The next demonstrations will have more participants, and things will most likely get out of hand, especially because many Vietnamese feel that the regime has been cowardly towards China while being harsh on the [Vietnamese] people.”
The Vietnamese hacking occurred at a time of escalating tensions in the South China Sea, where Beijing is embroiled in disputes with fellow communist-ruled Vietnam, as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, mostly over the presence of natural resources in areas where countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) overlap.
On May 26, three Chinese ships entered waters claimed by Vietnam and reportedly severed cables linking a survey vessel belonging to Vietnam’s state-owned oil and gas company to sensitive exploratory equipment.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry claims that Chinese naval ships last week also fired warning shots near Vietnamese fishermen in the Spratlys, which comprise hundreds of flyspeck islands, atolls and reefs.
The Philippines, meanwhile, accuses Chinese ships of entering Spratlys waters within the Philippine EEZ, and voiced alarm at reports in Chinese state media about Chinese plans to install an advanced oil rig in the area in July. President Benigno Aquino said Thursday Manila may lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations.
(EEZs are the territory extending 200 nautical miles from a coastal nation’s shore, recognized under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.)
Beijing’s aggressive assertion of its territorial claims was raised during a security summit in Singapore late last week, attended by defense ministers from across the region, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie.
Beijing last year upped the ante by informing the U.S. that it considers the South China Sea a “core interest,” a term it has previously reserved for top priority security issues like Tibet and Taiwan.
The U.S. in turn said it was a U.S. “national interest” to see freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea. China bristled at the deployment of U.S. warships in the area, and declared that the region could resolve its problems without “outside interference.”
China has also resisted efforts by countries in Southeast Asia to work together on the disputes, preferring to deal with the countries on a one-on-one basis, where its size and strength gives it a significant advantage.
Traveling in the region ahead of the Singapore conference, Liang reiterated that stance. According to his spokesman, Geng Yansheng, the defense minister said during visits to the Philippines and Indonesia that “the South China Sea issue should not be internationalized and should be dealt with based on bilateral mechanism,” Xinhua reported.
In Singapore, Gates gently pushed back, calling for countries in the region to agree to “some kind of multilateral mechanism” to resolve the South China Sea disputes.
Addressing the annual Asia Security Summit organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, he warned that “without rules of the road,” armed clashes would be inevitable, and that would serve “nobody’s interests.”
Although U.S.-China relations have improved since last year, Gates made it clear in Singapore that better ties would not come at the cost of downgrading U.S. interests in the region.
On the contrary, he said, the modernization of “systems that are of particular importance to our military strategy in Asia will rank at, or near the top of, our defense budget priorities in the future.”
Gates, who is stepping down from his post late this month, also announced that the U.S. will be deploying Littoral Combat Ships – fast and maneuverable U.S. Navy vessels designed for operations near to shore – in Singapore.