IT HAS BEEN a couple of years now since China abandoned its policy of asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea primarily by way of commercial fishing. Instead it has sent in its oilmen.
State-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) started drilling in the disputed waters in May 2011. Later that year it cheekily invited bids from foreign oil companies to join it in the exploration and development of nine blocks off the Vietnamese coast. The current standoff between China and Vietnam over the arrival of CNOOC’s deep-sea oil rig in what Vietnam says is its 200-mile exclusive economic zone and Beijing claims is only 20 miles off the coast of one of its islands, is only the latest development in a series stretching back to then.
Drilling rig HD-981 was China’s first home-developed deep-sea rig, and built to drill in those waters. It has been searching for the 23 billion-30 billion tonnes of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of natural gas believed to lie beneath the South China Sea — equivalent to one-half of China’s existing onshore oil and gas reserves.
It is first place of operation was some 300 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong between the Paracel Islands, claimed by China as the Xisha Islands and Vietnam as the Hoàng Sa Archipelago, and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by China as the Zhongsha Islands, and Taiwan. Not too far away lies the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island), scene of repeated maritime stand-offs between China and the Philippines, which calls it the Panatag Shoal. Earlier this week, Philippine authorities detained a Chinese fishing boat and its 11 crew members near the Spratly Islands, which China calls the Nansha Islands.
HD-981 is now deployed some 30 kilometers off one of the specs of rock in the Paracels and some 280 kilometers from the Vietnamese coast, which would put it 100 kilometers inside the exclusive economic zone Vietnam claims. The maritime argy-bargy has been matched by the diplomatic jostling. China has called for Vietnam to stop “disturbing” the operations of Chinese companies; Vietnam, for its part, has accused the PLA-N of intimidating Vietnamese vessels. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has been told to butt out of it after saying China’s actions in the region were “provocative”.
What is concerning to This Bystander is the large number of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels that have reportedly been involved, 40 on the Chinese side, 20 from Vietnam, with several warships in both flotillas. For Beijing’s part. this appears to be a response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia in which he reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to its Asian treaty allies. If Beijing feels those nations have been stiffened by U.S. reassurances, it may feel it needs to demonstrate its own robust response. That could leave these disputed waters more troubled than they been been in recent years.