With China’s oil rig back in the South China Sea, what’s Vietnam’s play?

Author: Chau Bao Nguyen, University of East Anglia

The redeployment of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea (SCS) shows an inconsistency in the rhetoric and practice of China’s policy in the disputed waters. Together with its mass land reclamation activities, these actions are part and parcel of coercive diplomacy. It affirms China’s territorial ambition in the highly strategic sea. But is it likely to escalate into regional conflict?

Chinese Haiyang Shiyou oil rig 981, 320 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong in the South China Sea, 7 May, 2012. On  July 16, 2014, China moved an oil rig that it had deployed in a section of the South China Sea, triggering a dispute with Vietnam. (Photo: AAP)

China’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) oil rig was redeployed in June after the 2014 dispute with Vietnam. This time, the rig returned at a crucial moment: just weeks before the first visit by the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington. With a rapprochement that is leading towards a US–Vietnam comprehensive partnership, the meeting’s agenda also includes South China Sea concerns, to China’s annoyance.

The move itself, announced by China’s maritime safety authorities, also comes soon after the country indicated it was close to completion of its land reclamation activities in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. Owned by the China National Offshore Oil Cooperation, the rig will officially operate from 26 June to 20 August 2015.

While the oil rig’s present location is not as close to Vietnam as it was in 2014, China’s intent is clear to be achieve tactical dominance in what it deems its own waters. Moreover, control over this area with nearby nuclear-armed submarines in Hainan Islands secures China’s second strike capability to counter any hypothetical US nuclear strike.

Yet it is unlikely that Vietnam will overreact to this provocation. They have no immediate reason to do so and are accustomed to Chinese displays of power. It would be prudent to continue the approach of carefully balancing and engaging China, as well as more distant powers. There was no press release from the Vietnamese spokesman after the incident. Vietnam’s muted response to the redeployment of the rig should be interpreted in the light of General Secretary Trong’s recent statement: ‘China is a big neighbour. So whether we like it or not, we still have to live close to that country. We don’t have the right to select a neighbour’.

China’s rhetoric regarding SCS policy walks a thin line between ‘indisputable sovereignty rights’ — regarding the 9-dash-line map that is currently printed in all new Chinese passports — and China being a responsible regional power. China has even gone as far as to hint at extending an open invitation to other regional states to use reclamation facilities, which include lighthouses, wireless navigation and communication, emergency rescue stations, and scientific research centres.

China is likely to continue to claim that those manufactured military facilities are inherently for defensive purposes rather than for employing its offensive advantage. But in reality, China’s practice in the SCS contradicts its rhetoric. Satellite images show the unprecedented speed, scale and intensity of , the most crucial aspect of which is the 3.5 kilometre runway suitable for combat aircrafts. It is calculated that the total area reclaimed jumped from 5 acres in January 2014 to 500 acres in January 2015. By June 2015, China had reclaimed 2000 acres, more than all the land reclaimed by all other countries in the SCS combined.

This differs from other reclamation activities in the region because it is reportedly coupled with heavy weaponry stationed onto the artificial islands. China has also been using water cannons to attack other claimants’ fishing boats. These actions violate the UN’s prohibition of the threat or use of force. They can hardly been described as ‘self-restraint’, which had been agreed to in the non-binding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS.

But Beijing’s move may prove detrimental to its larger foreign policy interests, specifically the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. This grand strategy focuses on infrastructure connectivity and economic cooperation among China and Eurasian and Asian countries, including ASEAN, as well as some African countries.

The SCS dispute has already dominated the latest ASEAN summit and the subsequent official statement. Ultimately, escalating tension will only further unite ASEAN on matters in the SCS, a topic on which consensus does exist within the Association, however fragile or contested it might be.

China is also still surrounded by a network of countries with ‘hub-and-spoke’ military cooperation with the United States: Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. With the Obama administration coming to a close, the United States could enhance its policy of ‘pivoting’ to Asia, which stipulates the maintenance of regional stability and freedom of navigation.

As China is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a status quo in the SCS, a for China: both the costs and risks of the latter are too high for Beijing. A clearer, pragmatic and well-articulated foreign policy would be a conduit to a leading role for China on the international maritime chessboard. As global power configuration shifts and evolves, small state like Vietnam will lead a balanced yet independent foreign and security. Moving forward, gradualism is still the best approach for this dispute resolution.

Chau Bao Nguyen is a PhD candidate in Politics and international relations at the University of East Anglia, and a lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

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