China’ s deployment of a giant oil rig in South China Sea waters contested by Vietnam has sparked a bitter bilateral row, with both sides accusing the other of ramming ships patrolling the area. The sharp rise in tensions comes ahead of the May 10 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which four states have competing maritime territorial claims with China. Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales, spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese Service about what the oil rig crisis means for China’s plans in the South China Sea and how ASEAN members will respond.
Q: China has brought an oil rig into waters in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The Vietnamese foreign minister called Beijing to try to settle the issue down. But China’s Global Times said China should teach Vietnam “a lesson.” What do you think?
A: For China to put an oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone is a new development, it’s a provocation, and it violated Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. But the reports that I’m receiving are that up to 70 Chinese vessels of all types have surrounded that rig and there has been at least one incident where a Chinese vessel collided with a Vietnamese coast guard vessel and caused injuries. Among the 70 ships, American sources are telling me, there are Chinese PLA navy warships, and that is a major escalation by involving military ships rather than coast guard.
Q: In Washington, the U.S. State Dept spokeswoman called China’s actions “provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.” What are your thoughts?
A: It’s definitely provocative, first because relations between Vietnam and China after [Chinese Prime Minister] Li Keqiang’s visit last year were on an upward spiral—they were talking of joint development and all kinds of wonderful prospects—and that would seem to be set back now.
But what China has done is provocative because it threatens every other country in the region. Malaysia and Indonesia were already reacting to Chinese pressures against the Philippines by privately taking defensive maneuvers in their own areas to protect their maritime jurisdiction claims. This is on the eve of an ASEAN meeting in Myanmar, so the South China Sea will come on the issue.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel [who is on a visit to Hanoi] will be able to exchange viewpoints with Vietnam and perhaps the two can walk away with an understanding of how diplomatic initiatives will evolve in the coming weeks.
Q: What will happen in the region if China goes on to activate the oil rig?
A: [That] China actually begins drilling … is unlikely, because what I’m hearing here in Hanoi is that when typhoon season begins to approach, China will probably withdraw the rig around August. So there’s plenty of room between now and August for China just to [cite] technical reasons and move the rig out.
In the past China has just offered concessions to other companies—and they haven’t taken that up—or China has reacted by cutting cables of foreign exploration vessels to stop [exploration].
This time China has put a huge rig, so it’s invested a lot of Chinese prestige in this area and the rig will have to be protected [if it stays]. What does that mean? A prolonged Chinese presence and another example of its creeping assertiveness. ... It tells countries in the region that over the long term, unless the U.S. protects them and comes in in a stronger way, China will bit by bit end up asserting its sovereignty. And they have no response because no one’s paramilitary forces are equivalent to China’s coast guard.
Q: What will be the role of ASEAN if the situation gets more serious?
A: Core members of ASEAN have formed more or less a consensus after the debacle in Cambodia, but ASEAN as a whole will be disappointing. They will condemn but not mention China by name, in my opinion. They will uphold international law, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, they will oppose the use of force or threat of force or coercion, and they will call for a speedy conclusion of a binding code of conduct. In other words, it’s a record that’s been put back on the machine that will play again and again because ASEAN itself can do nothing.
But separately, individual countries—as we’ve seen with the enhanced cooperation between the Philippines and the U.S., and with Indonesia and Malaysia, where … they’ve taken steps to create naval bases and move new military forces into areas adjacent to the South China Sea—will take steps to prevent what’s happened to Vietnam, [to prevent them from] waking up in the morning and finding that China has put a rig in their exclusive economic zone.
It’s unclear how much advance knowledge Vietnam had. If it did [have knowledge of China’s plans for the rig], that explains why the coast guard vessels were there. But then China arrived with overwhelming force, and I think that’s the lesson for Indonesia and Malaysia.
The core region, not ASEAN as a whole but core members, will be more unified and worried about what China will do next.