The fact that the Chinese moved ahead in placing their rig immediately after President Obama’s visit to four Asian countries in late April underlines Beijing’s commitment to test the resolve of Vietnam, its ASEAN neighbors and Washington.
By Christopher Helman
Two weeks ago on his trip to Asia, President Obama drew another red line, declaring that a group of islands, claimed by both Japan and China, were covered by America’s security treaty with Japan.
In the Philippines, Obama inked a 10-year agreement to increase U.S. forces there.
Though the president made a point of not visiting China on what some dubbed a “China containment tour,” he insisted “We’re not interested in containing China.”
The Chinese don’t appear to believe him.
This week Beijing decided to assert its aggression in the region.
On May 3, China’s state-controlled oil giant Cnooc moved a deepwater drilling rig to a spot just 120 miles off the coast of Vietnam, smack dab in the middle of oil and gas exploration blocks that Vietnam claims as its own and where PetroVietnam and ExxonMobil have discovered big oil and gas reserves.
Vietnam has demanded that Beijing call it off.
In the past day Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have been in a standoff near the rig, with Chinese ships reportedly spraying water at the Vietnamese.
On May 4, Chinese ships reportedly rammed Vietnamese vessels.
Chinese media quoted a government spokeswoman as insisting that not only had the rig been positioned in Chinese waters near the Paracel Islands, but that Beijing urged Vietnam to stop interfering.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Cnooc’s actions were “provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.”
China’s spokeswoman said, according to Xinhua news service, that the U.S. is in no position to make irresponsible remarks on China’s affairs.
The $1 billion Cnooc 981 rig was the first advanced drillship built in China.
Indeed how could anyone seriously believe that the Obama Administration would do anything to thwart the Cnooc rig’s operations.
Obama failed to take action when his own red line was crossed in Syria.
Vladimir Putin’s cronies laugh at U.S. sanctions imposed after the Crimea takeover.
Iraq is hurtling toward civil war.
Iran is ever closer to the bomb.
Ernest Bower and Gregory Polling of the Center For Strategic & International Studies summed it up in their analysis yesterday (see their entire piece, with maps, here):
"The implications of these developments are significant.
"The fact that the Chinese moved ahead in placing their rig immediately after President Obama’s visit to four Asian countries in late April underlines Beijing’s commitment to test the resolve of Vietnam, its ASEAN neighbors and Washington.
"Beijing may also be attempting to substantially change the facts on the seas by moving while it perceives Washington to be distracted by Russian aggression inUkraine, developments in Nigeria, and Syria.
"If China believes Washington is distracted, in an increasingly insular and isolationist mood and unwilling to back up relatively strong security assertions made to Japan and the Philippines and repeated during President Obama’s trip, these developments south of the Paracel Islands could have long term regional and global consequences."
Analysts in China see it pretty much the same way.
In an op-ed in China Daily, Liu Weidong wrote:
"Although Obama claimed the U.S. was not trying to contain China, what he has done shows clearly it is...
"The U.S.’ intention of returning to the Asian-Pacific region is to achieve a balance in favor of the US, and that was the main goal of Obama’s Asia trip this time.
"But this is an unbalanced approach because it is in favor of the countries that have disputes with China, so China is forced to seek a counterbalance.
"Obama’s unprecedented promise to support Japan in the territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea is enough to show the US’ concern over China’s new legally established Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
"Also facing frustrations in Syria and Crimea, the US is becoming unreasonably tough with China in a bid to maintain its image as the undisputed global leader.
"Objectively speaking, the U.S.’ rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is aimed at achieving a strategic balance between China and Japan that will prevent war between them but also prevent their reconciliation.
"It will also make both countries woo the US, which will help reinforce the U.S.’ dominant position as an “offshore balancer”."
It’s not the first time China has invaded the Paracel Islands with a drilling rig.
It did the same thing back in 2012, at which time Cnooc Chairman Wang Yilin said, “Large deepwater drilling rigs are our mobile national territory and strategic weapon for promoting the development of the country’s offshore oil industry.”
Taking him literally, it means that Cnooc’s drilling rigs are akin to ships in the Chinese Navy.
No one expects the Obama administration to respond to China’s aggression.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that in its $19 billion acquisition of Canada-based Nexen last year, Cnooc acquired some 200 exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
Those leases were altered as a condition of U.S. approval of the deal, with Cnooc forced to give up operatorship of the blocks.
But if Cnooc really considers its drilling rigs “mobile national territory” then perhaps the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should apply some special scrutiny when Cnooc and its partners request permits to drill off U.S. shores.