Several hundred Chinese nationals have streamed into Cambodia from Vietnam in the wake of riots there sparked by the arrival of a Chinese oil rig in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi.
The violence started Tuesday in southern Vietnam—where thousands of rioters rampaged through industrial zones setting fire to mostly Taiwanese-owned factories—and spread to the center of the country Thursday, where between one and 21 people were killed, according to news reports.
Mam Yoy, deputy immigration police chief at the Bavet International Checkpoint, said just over 640 Chinese citizens came through on Wednesday, more than six times the usual number.
“There were a lot of Chinese citizens crossing Thursday; usually the number crossing is less than 100,” he said. “Maybe they’re afraid for their personal security and the spread of anti-China riots.”
He said they came mostly by bus or van, or simply walked across, and that most—according to their identification papers—were business people.
Mr. Yoy said the numbers were back to normal Thursday, and officials at two smaller checkpoints along the border said they had seen no spike in numbers of Chinese passing through at all.
Cheng Hong Bo, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said about 400 to 500 Chinese nationals fleeing the violence have arrived in the city in the past two days and that the numbers could still rise.
“If the situation [is] getting worse, yes, I think so,” he said.
Mr. Hong Bo said the embassy contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Thursday to ask authorities to ensure the violence did not spread to Cambodia.
“We asked them to take [the] necessary measures to safeguard security,” he said. “I think the Cambodian authorities will take appropriate measures according to the relevant situation.”
Mr. Hong Bo said he did not know what, if any, additional measures the Cambodian government offered to take, however. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he was not aware of any communication with the Chinese Embassy.
A spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, Tran Van Trong, conceded that the violence in Vietnam was driving Chinese citizens across the border.
“The Chinese are coming to Cambodia because the Vietnamese are protesting against China sending an oil [rig] to Vietnamese sovereign territory,” he said.
“The Vietnamese workers are nationalists and they protest because they are defending their territory,” Mr. Van Trong added. “They do not want China to invade their territory. They are not protesting against Chinese business people.”
Local news reports claimed that the Association of Khmer Vietnamese in Cambodia was planning to protest against the rig’s arrival in front of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh this week.
The association’s president, Sim Chi, denied the reports Thursday. But he said his group was drafting a letter to send to both the Chinese and Vietnamese embassies urging them to solve their dispute over the South China Sea peacefully.
China claims ownership over most of the sea, one of the world’s major shipping lanes also thought to have vast deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim overlapping parts of the sea.
Though the government denies it, Cambodia is widely seen as siding with China—its largest foreign investor and bilateral creditor-in the dispute.
As chair of Asean in 2012, Cambodia brought a foreign ministers’ meeting to a close without a joint communique for the first time in the bloc’s history because it refused requests from other members to mention recent flare-ups with China over the sea disputes.
At a summit of Asean leaders on Sunday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told other regional heads of state that China was escalating its dangerous behavior in the disputed seas. However, the association of nations did not criticize Beijing in its joint communique following the summit.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)