China’s decision to place an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam has raised the stakes in the showdown over the South China Sea. As the week came to an end, violence and lack of diplomatic talk indicate indicate tensions between China and Vietnam are not getting better.
China claims almost the entire maritime region, despite various competing claims from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, in addition to Hanoi.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung says by placing the oil rig near the Paracel Islands China has “seriously threatened peace and stability.”
Beijing says Vietnam’s claim to the region is “ridiculous,” with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang calling the islands the “indisputable territory of the Chinese people.”
Vietnamese outrage over the Chinese oil rig triggered anti-China protests that killed at least two people earlier this month.
In addition, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank this week after it was allegedly rammed by Chinese vessels. Vietnam says four other ships were surrounded and rammed by Chinese vessels two days later.
Two experts spoke to VOA about the Chinese decision to place the oil rig in contested waters at this time, knowing it would provoke outrage from Vietnam.
“I think it’s part of a long-term pattern of testing the responses of states around the region, ranging along the spectrum of much weaker states like the Philippines up to Japan and the United States,” said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“There are moments of opportunity and this seemed to be one where they could get away with really trying to stake their claim in waters that by almost any definition are Vietnam’s,” Auslin said.
John Tkacik, the director of the Future Asia Project at the International Strategy and Assessment Center in Alexandria, Virginia, agrees with the perception that this was a calculated move by Beijing.
“I think this has been in the works for a long time,” Tkacik said. “One just doesn’t just get a $1.2 billion oil rig and plunk it in the South China Sea as a way of sending a signal on the spur of the moment.”
The dispute is complicated by China’s preference to deal with the countries involved individually, instead of through an organization like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. That has made the other members of ASEAN concerned about China’s growing might.
Chinese President Xi Jinping says China works to resolve peacefully issues of maritime sovereignty, and questions Asian countries that seek alliances against neighbors.
“If you look ahead, clearly the ground is shifting against China, I would argue, in terms of perceptions and the degree to which other Southeast Asian nations are willing to let it expand without type of hedges around it,” said Auslin.
Vietnamese officials indicate they might take legal action against China concerning the oil rig and attacks against Vietnamese ships. The U.S. might help the Southeast Asian nations in this regard, according to John Tkacik.
“International law, on the Law of the Sea, to be specific, is on the side of the non-China claimants here,” he said. “The United States is in a position to play a leadership role in forcing this issue into an international arbitration.”