Contractors for a massive Taiwanese-owned project on the coast of central Vietnam have requested permission to bring on as many as 10,000 workers from China, reports say, drawing concerns from Vietnamese experts that the move could pose a security threat to Hanoi amid a maritime dispute.
The official Vietnam News Agency cited an unnamed source as saying that the 28 contractors of the project, developed by the Taiwan-based Formosa Group contractors, had requested a total of 11,000 foreign workers, 90 percent of which are Chinese.
The management board of the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Ha Tinh province, where the project is situated, told the state-owned Tuoi Tre newspaper that the contractors had so far secured permission from local authorities to employ 2,500 mostly Chinese foreign workers.
The paper cited the management as saying that contractors had asked to bring on 10,000 foreign workers, about 80 percent of whom are Chinese.
Deputy head of the board Pham Tran De said 1,900 of the 2,500 approved workers had already arrived in Vietnam.
He said that the contractors, 25 of which are Chinese, had requested mostly Chinese workers because it would save them the cost of employing interpreters, as much of the machinery and equipment they use was manufactured either in China or Taiwan.
Authorities in Ha Tinh are currently considering whether to allow the contractors to recruit the other 7,500 foreign workers, the report said.
Tuoi Tre reported that the economic zone currently employs 25,155 workers in total, including 3,245 foreigners, citing numbers provided by the board. No breakdown was given on the number of Chinese workers.
Formosa is the largest foreign investor in Vietnam in terms of the investment capital. It is building a U.S. $10 billion steel integrated mill and deep-sea port in the Vung Ang Economic Zone, according to the official Vietnam Net.
The potential influx of new Chinese workers has caused concerns over security in Vietnam, where in May protesters rioted over China’s decision to deploy a massive oil rig off of territory disputed by the two nations in South China Sea waters.
Economist Bui Kien Thanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the planned Vung Ang port, some 120 miles (193 kilometers) west of the coast of China’s Hainan province across the Gulf of Tonkin, could be of vital strategic importance to Beijing.
“Once the Chinese build the port at Vung Ang, across from which is Hainan, then the Gulf of Tonkin will become a Chinese lake,” he said.
“This will interfere with water-based transportation from the north to the south of Vietnam. What might happen next?”
Thanh said that the project also places Hanoi’s ability to defend the country at risk.
“From Vung Ang to Laos [on Vietnam’s western border] it is only about 50 kilometers (31 miles). What will we do to protect ourselves from China … It only takes about a few hours to travel by car and they could divide Vietnam into two sections [by controlling the bottleneck].”
The Formosa project in Ha Tinh covers an area of 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) and will be the firm’s first steel manufacturing project in the country, which will eventually boast an annual capacity of 7.5 million tons, Vietnam Net said.
It cited Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment as saying that Formosa currently benefits from the highest incentives possible under the country’s laws related to imported raw materials, machinery and equipment.
The Vietnamese media has repeatedly quoted experts as saying that the project enjoys too many privileges in terms of taxes and funding, adding that once it is finished it will pose a serious threat to domestic steel companies.
Economist Le Dang Doanh said that Vietnamese are also concerned about Chinese workers operating in several other projects around the country, including in the Central Highlands, which he called “a strategically important area in terms of defense for Vietnam.”
“China has invested in many projects [in Vietnam]. They build their own compounds with high walls and fences so that no one can determine what is happening inside—whether there are real workers or troops inside and what they are doing,” he said.
“The concern is huge, and I don’t understand why these kinds of Chinese complexes exist in our territory which are closed to outside, such as the one in Ha Tinh.”
The anti-Chinese riots following Beijing’s May rig deployment left at least four people dead and led to the destruction of factories, believed to be operated by Chinese companies, though many were Taiwanese-owned. A construction site run by Formosa was also attacked in the violence.
Some 4,000 Chinese fled Vietnam amid the riots, according to Chinese state media.
Vietnam special envoy Le Hong Anh's visit to China this week helped steady ties after the two-month standoff over the rig, with the two nations agreeing to avoid future actions in the South China Sea, but many Vietnamese remain distrustful of Beijing’s motives.
Reported by Nam Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.