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China-Vietnam Sea Spat Heats Up

May. 25, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
This picture taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14 shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship, left, is challenged by a Chinese Coast Guard ship near to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig in the background being installed in disputed waters in the South China Sea off Vietnam's central coast. (Hoang Dinh Nam / Getty Images)
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TAIPEI — Thucydides, the Greek historian who penned the story of the Peloponnesian War, wrote that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The quote might be an appropriate description of what Vietnam is suffering after the placement of a Chinese mega oil rig off its coast this month.

On May 3, China announced that the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) would conduct exploratory drilling operations from May 2 to Aug. 15, and denied allegations by Hanoi that the rig was within its exclusive economic zone.

The placement of a Chinese oil rig off the coast of Vietnam is part of China’s strategy of “slow intensity conflict,” said Andrew Scobell of the RAND Corp. China has gradually ratcheted up efforts since the 1970s to assert control of the South China Sea. The reasons include fishery resources, oil and gas deposits, and control of the sea lanes of communication.

Scobell, who coined the term, said slow intensity conflict differs from low intensity conflict in that conventional warfare between regular military units is possible, but these tend to be between small units involved in minor and infrequent fighting.

Rioting and looting of Chinese and Taiwanese factories in response appears to have caught Beijing unprepared. Vietnamese and Chinese ships swiped water cannon blasts, and Vietnamese and Philippine leaders openly discussed military cooperation.

While the rig is scheduled to drill, China must maintain a presence to prevent Vietnam from interfering with operations, said Carl Thayer, a regional maritime specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“In the initial phases of the crisis it was reported that Vietnam deployed up to 29 ships of all types,” Thayer said. “China’s presence has grown rapidly from 70 to roughly 110,” including a few naval warships. “The costs of maintaining the rig in place have been estimated at several tens of thousands of dollars up to a million dollars per day, [and now] the costs of the other ships would add to the figure.”

Martin Murphy, author of the forthcoming book, “Littoral Warfare: Navies Confront the 21st-Century,” said the appearance of the oil rig “in Vietnamese waters” was “predictable.” He said Beijing has long viewed oil rigs as “mobile national territory” and warned that the US must stop viewing Chinese companies as separate entities from the Chinese Communist Party. For China, CNOOC platforms create an “ambiguous political-legal aura of authority and control.” This can create an “advantageous position” for Beijing despite the fact there is no international legal recognition of oil rigs as sovereign territory.

“China’s so-called capitalists, who are really mercantilists — all of whom have some government connections or support — view access to resources as a win-loss proposition,” said Sam Tangredi, author of the new book, “Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies.”

The placement of the oil rig could be part of a Chinese strategy to “carve out a swath” of the northern part of the South China Sea by reinforcing the authority of the newly created San Sha prefecture in July 2012, Thayer said. This new administrative status gave it a garrison command and nominal authority over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Macclesfield Bank. The next step will be the “promulgation of an air defense identification zone over the Paracels and airspace from the Paracels west to Vietnam.”

Murphy said the fact that China avoided sending warships, even though it sent more than 80 maritime security vessels, to protect the oil rig indicates that China is convinced that it can “intimidate its Southeast Asian neighbors into acquiescing with its acquisitive policies and [at the same time] give the US no justification for intervention ... and, so far, China appears to be right.” ■


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