China’s decision to park its biggest mobile oil rig 222km off the Vietnamese coast has exposed how vulnerable Hanoi, and other littoral states of the South China Sea, are to moves by the region’s dominant power to assert its territorial claims.
Among the communist neighbors, the drilling rig’s placement in contested waters is a contentious issue, with each party accusing the other of ramming its ships in the area in the worst setback for Sino-Vietnamese ties in years.
While Hanoi’s dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), for example, involves fellow claimants Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, it is primarily Vietnam that contests China’s expanding occupation of the Paracels (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which Taiwan also claims.
For years now, Hanoi has tried to open talks with Beijing over China’s moves on the islands, insisting that they are Vietnamese territory.
While the countries have put aside historic suspicions in recent years to demarcate their land border and the Gulf of Tonkin, negotiations stop dead at the Paracels further south.
Whenever the Vietnamese raise the issue, the Chinese say there is nothing to discuss because the Paracels are under Chinese occupation and sovereignty and not in dispute, according to diplomats close to regular Sino-Vietnamese negotiations.
And although officials on both sides now say they want talks over the intensifying standoff at sea, where dozens of rival patrol ships flank the rig, the Chinese are determined to keep the question of sovereignty off the table.
Wu Shicun (吳士存), president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese government think tank, said Beijing was not about to back down.
“I think China will keep moving ahead with its plan [in Xisha], no matter what Vietnam says and does,” Wu told reporters.
Chinese oil industry sources say hydrocarbon reserves under the rig’s location remain unproven, and say political, rather than commercial, interests drove its placement on Friday last week by China’s state-run oil company CNOOC.
Hanoi strategists have been closely watching the construction and initial deployments of the rig, HD-981, over the past two years.
Vietnamese diplomats say they will be pushing for support when regional leaders gather in Myanmar for a weekend ASEAN summit.
However, analysts say there is no guarantee of long-term regional or international support for Vietnam.
The country has a range of budding military relationships, including with the US, but it has rejected formal alliances, unlike Japan and the Philippines.
“China does seem to have moved at the point of maximum vulnerability for Vietnam,” said Carl Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“There is a risk some other countries will simply say it is not their problem,” he said. “The Paracels [are] not the Spratlys.”
Vietnam formally protested over China’s placement of the rig, saying it was 120 nautical miles (222km) from its coast and within its exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying that the rig was “completely within the waters of China’s Paracel Islands,” while Chinese analysts said that it was within 27.4km of the southwestern tip of the islands.