Vietnam Spat Represents a Chinese Leap
Oil-Rig Stand-Off in South China Sea Tests Resolve of Neighbors, Washington at a time when some in the region fear the Obama administration's focus on Asia is wavering
By BRIAN SPEGELE in Beijing and VU TRONG KHANH in Hanoi - hursday, May 08, 2014
Vietnam released footage it said was of a Chinese vessel ramming a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea as Vietnam tried to prevent the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters. Via The Foreign Bureau, WSJ's global news update.
When China parked a giant oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam, it confirmed what Washington and regional governments have long feared: Beijing is taking a major leap in the defense of its territorial claims, testing the resolve of rattled neighbors—as well as the U.S.
At the heart of the latest maneuvering for control in the South China Sea is China's most modern oil rig, deployed by a state-owned oil company off the contested Paracel Islands over the objections of Hanoi, whose coast guard has sought to obstruct the rig's work.
The standoff over the rig has built over several days, bursting into open conflict on Wednesday when Vietnamese officials said that about 80 Chinese vessels had moved into disputed areas near it and that six Vietnamese crew members had been injured in scuffles.
Rear Adm. Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of the Vietnamese coast guard, said Thursday that the situation at the site remains tense, with many ships still there.
Officials from both countries allege its vessels have been rammed by the other.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official demanded on Thursday that Vietnam withdraw its ships.
The rig isn't just any piece of equipment; the 138-meter-high (455 feet) platform is China's first deep-water rig, capable of operating in 3,000 meters of water.
Launched with great fanfare two years ago, it was billed as a "strategic weapon" for China's oil industry.
The oil rig is a potential game-changer as it makes possible a long-held Chinese goal: more aggressive pursuit of oil development close to home.
"The intention has always been there," said Christopher Len, a fellow at the National University of Singapore's Energy Studies Institute, of China's plans to drill in portions of the South China Sea it claims. "Now they have the capability to do so."
But while the dispute centers on the oil platform—and its promise of unlocking the South China Sea's untapped resources—at the heart of the standoff, security analysts say, are much higher stakes around the precedent the standoff may set and whether China's neighbors and the U.S. will allow it to seize control of strategic resources in disputed areas.
China is testing Washington's commitment to aiding regional partners at a time when some in the region fear the Obama administration's focus on Asia is wavering, security experts said.
On his swing through the region last month, U.S. President Barack Obama went to great lengths to reassure U.S. allies of America's: He told Japan that U.S. security guarantees were absolute and covered a set of East China Sea islands that Japan controls but that China also claims.
In Manila, he called U.S. military support for the Philippines "ironclad," though he left vague whether that extended to aid in the country's island disputes.
His itinerary didn't include Vietnam, despite growing security and diplomatic ties with the former U.S. foe that are in part built on reservations about Chinese power.
The fact that China deployed the rig shortly after Mr. Obama's Asia tour "underlines Beijing's commitment to test the resolve of Vietnam, its [Associaltion of Souteast Asian Nations] neighbors and Washington," wrote security scholars Ernest Bower andGregory Poling, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China has laid claim to much of the South China Sea for decades.
Its intent to establish control hasn't changed, security analysts say.
But under Xi Jinping, China's government has begun to more aggressively demonstrate its capabilities, courting more direct conflict with neighbors—trends that have prompted deep worry in Washington.
"This is indicative of the new style of the Chinese government: that they are willing to push through with their claims through actions," said Mr. Len of the National University of Singapore.
A senior State Department official on a visit to Hanoi on Thursday said the U.S. is "very concerned about any dangers."
Daniel R. Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs urged all parties involved in territorial disputes in the area to exercise restraint and noted that the U.S. doesn't take a position on any country's claim in the South China Sea.
The islands, reefs and atolls of the South China Sea, and the waters around them, are claimed in whole or in part by six governments.
Though the disputes have prevented thorough exploration, energy analysts believe significant reserves of oil and gas lie beneath its seabed.
On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said that the decision to deploy the rig was a part of normal Chinese exploration activity in the area, which he said has been ongoing for years.
"We are deeply shocked by Vietnam's disruptive activities," said the official, Yi Xianliang, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, at a news conference in Beijing.
Mr. Yi said that between Saturday and Wednesday, Vietnamese ships had rammed Chinese vessels 171 times.
He demanded Vietnamese vessels pull back from the area near where the Chinese rig, controlled by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp., is attempting to operate.
Mr. Yi didn't say if any Chinese crew members had been injured in the incidents, and said he wasn't able to provide a number for the Chinese ships taking part.
He said the Chinese navy wasn't involved.
Cnooc's central role in the continuing feud underscores how China's state-owned enterprises are often willing to work in risky areas, particularly when they have backing from Beijing.
As much as China needs new energy sources, the objective of the Cnooc rig in the South China Sea goes beyond any potential oil discoveries, according to some security analysts.
"A rig offers a purpose for vessels to hold a position," said Elliot Brennan, a research fellow at Sweden's Institute for Security and Development Policy.