Beijing attempts to provoke conflict with Vietnam over maritime claims

May 9, 2014.

The Chinese government seems determined to provoke a military clash with its neighbours over disputed ownership of islands and conflicting maritime boundaries.

This week’s clashes between Vietnamese naval and coast guard vessels, and Chinese ships defending a deep-sea oil rig Beijing’s state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has parked in disputed waters in the South China Sea is the most dangerous confrontation in the area in many years.

South China Sea. Photo: United States Government, public domain

China is reported to have deployed about 80 ships to the area, supported by aircraft, and Hanoi has sent 29 vessels to disrupt the rig’s placement and operations. The clashes have left sailors on both sides injured and several of the ships damaged in collisions, but no lethal weapons have been used so far.

In these situations it is easy for mistakes or misjudgements to be made, and for violence to swiftly spiral out of control.

It is particularly dangerous because Beijing clearly intended the positioning of the rig to be provocative. The rig, CNOOC’s most modern, expensive and called HD-981, is sitting 120 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast and well within Hanoi’s 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone.” There is little economic justification for oil or gas exploration at this spot, which preliminary surveys show to be highly unlikely to bring returns.

And while the Hanoi would prefer to keep civil relations with China, which is an important trade partner, appeasement is not a word that comes readily to the lips of Vietnamese, who never shy away from a fight.

Vietnamese army and naval forces fought the Chinese in 1974 over the Paracel Islands, in the northern stretches of the South China Sea. The Chinese won that battle and it is on the basis of its occupation of the Paracels that Beijing claims HD-981 is in the Chinese economic zone. It is 17 nautical miles south of Triton Island, the most south-western of the Paracel Islands. Vietnam does not recognize China’s claim to the Paracels and regards the islands as illegally occupied.

But Hanoi got some revenge for the Paracels defeat when it threw back a Chinese invasion of its northern provinces in 1979. Beijing wanted to give the upstart Vietnamese a lesson for invading neighbouring Cambodia and removing the Khmer Rouge regime. Instead, it was China that got a bloody nose. That defeat still rankles among officers of Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and has been one of the spurs for China’s massive military modernization program of the last three decades.

Backed by its arsenal of modern ships, submarines, warplanes and missiles, Beijing has become increasingly assertive over its territorial disputes with its neighbours. It often appears this policy is being led by the PLA, whose senior officers frequently write bellicose articles for state-owned media. These include recent unambiguous threats of war against Vietnam.

If Beijing and the PLA are intent on showing their neighbours that China’s new military is not a toy army and is ready and able to project Chinese power, Vietnam is more likely than others to give them the opportunity.

In the last few months Beijing’s air and maritime forces have tried unsuccessfully to push Japan and the Philippines into violent responses after incursions by Chinese vessels in the South China and East China seas.

Tokyo reacted calmly, though in the background Beijing’s challenges are driving moves by the Japanese government to amend its pacifist constitution and take greater responsibility for its own defence.

The Philippines has recognized that it does not have the forces to effectively confront China and instead launched a legal challenge. However, on Wednesday Philippines coast guards detained a Chinese fishing boat near Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The Chinese captain and his 10 crew members were arrested after Philippines police found 500 protected sea turtles on the fishing boat.

China claims the Spratly island chain and Beijing officials have thundered that the Philippines action is a provocation.

In Washington President Barack Obama saw Beijing’s confrontations with America’s Asian allies as an opportunity to affirm the stated policy of his administration to “pivot” its focus of attention and support from the Middle East to Asia.

On a swift tour of the region last month Obama told the Japanese that United States security guarantees are absolute and include the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls, but which China claims. In Manila, Obama said U.S. military support for the Philippines is “ironclad.”

Obama did not visit Vietnam, but there are growing military and diplomatic ties between Hanoi and Washington, many of them promoted by Hanoi as a counter to China’s mounting military assertiveness.

Coming so soon after Obama’s tour, China’s decision to send the HD-981 oil rig into disputed waters has to be seen as an effort to test the resolve both of Washington and Vietnam.

Vietnam is taking that challenge seriously, as it has in the past. Vietnam’s offshore oil and gas reserves are already an important part of the country’s economy, and Hanoi has shown a willingness to defend its interests on several occasions. In 2007 Hanoi sent ships to stop Chinese vessels from conducting a seismic survey in waters just to the north of where HD-981 is now anchored. And in 2010 a Chinese patrol ship from its Bureau of Fisheries Administration was surrounded by Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters and driven off.

The timing of the oil rig’s mission also indicates it is a purposeful provocation by Beijing to see how firm is the reaction. Next week the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is due to hold a summit in Burma, also called Myanmar.

ASEAN members include Vietnam and the Philippines, but also Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia with whom Beijing has disputes over ownership of islands in the South China Sea. Indeed, Beijing claims ownership of practically the whole sea right down to Indonesia, about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest undisputed Chinese landfall on Hainan island.

Last year Beijing managed to keep the South China Sea dispute off the ASEAN agenda by leaning on the conference chairman, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has made his country something of a Chinese vassal state.

It may not be so easy this time, with China’s pushing and prodding of Vietnam fresh in everyone’s minds.

While it was an isolated military dictatorship Burma too relied heavily on China for support. But since the start of its transition to democracy, the Naypyidaw government has shown a firm willingness to play off Beijing, not only against fellow ASEAN members, but also against neighbouring India, as well as Japan and the U.S.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


Further reading:
Other works on F&O about the South China Sea
Site of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

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