On the very day that a top Chinese diplomat arrived in Vietnam to discuss the dispute over the Chinese oil rig deployed in Vietnamese waters, Beijing announced it was towing yet another rig into what the rest of the world calls the South China Sea.
According to a statement posted on the website of China’s Maritime Safety Administration, the rig will be towed between June 18 and June 20 and is currently 104 nautical miles northeast of Da Nang (Vietnam’s central hub) and 60 nautical miles from China’s Hainan Island.
It remains to be seen where the rig will end up, but the timing of China’s second deployment into waters that Vietnam calls the East Sea is telling enough, analysts say.
“The deployment is apparently well-calculated,” Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, told Thanh Nien News. “Given [that] Yang is in Vietnam, the decision certainly suggests China’s unwillingness to abandon its coercive approach.”
China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi arrived in Hanoi on Wednesday to engage in talks with Vietnam’s top leaders — Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.
The meeting was supposed to focus on China’s deployment of a giant US$1-billion oil rig into Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf on May 2.
The act sparked ongoing confrontations between vessels near the rig, leading to a number of attacks and collisions. Further inland, the provocation triggered peaceful anti-China protests that erupted into deadly violence in central and southern Vietnam in mid-May.
The two countries have traded diplomatic barbs ever since.
China insists the rig remains inside its sovereign waters and has accused Vietnam of sending ships to disrupt its legitimate operations. Vietnam maintains that Chinese ships have rammed, sunk and fired water cannons at a fleet of civilian and police vessels attempting to protect its maritime sovereignty.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said his government will consider taking legal action against China to resolve the dispute. In March, the Philippines submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, challenging China’s claims in the East Sea.
During separate meetings with Yang on Wednesday, Vietnamese leaders continued to slam the deployment of China’s first rig.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that the act seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and breached international law. China’s actions also “hurt the sentiment of the Vietnamese people,” Dung said. He demanded that China withdraw the rig and its armada from Vietnamese waters .
Later the same day, Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong described Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the East Sea as “irreversible”.
A statement released by the Chinese foreign ministry described Yang, China’s most senior diplomat (who outranks even its foreign minister) as telling Trong that both countries should try and resolve their differences no matter how hard that seemed.
China will “take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty,” the statement quoted Yang as saying.
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line–a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims from four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Analysts say that by deploying these rigs, China seeks to reinforce what it believes is its legitimate operation in the resources- and oil-rich East Sea.
“I do believe that China is not backing down from its claim,” Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, told Thanh Nien News.“ To do so would invite shame so they are playing more the role of the bully.”
McCormac believes that the confrontation at sea is designed to distract a domestic audience from news of flagging economic growth and traumatic news of violent attacks by militant Islamic minority groups.
Other analysts say China’s recent move is less of a nationalist sideshow and more of a calculated resource grab.
This camp believes that China appears to be marking out areas for exploration that are legally and practically convenient given their proximity to the China National Offshore Oil Corporation bases and infrastructure on Hainan Island–where the state-owned oil company can both supply and protect its rigs.
“That is perhaps why Vietnam has been singled out by China, despite efforts Hanoi has made in recent years to mend fences and pursue cooperation,” said Euan Graham, a maritime analyst with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
These analysts point out that China believes its past unilateral restraint has done nothing to improve its position in its sea disputes and this inaction has in fact resulted in other claimant countries strengthening their presence and claims.
In order for China to improve its position in the current climate or for future negotiations, they argue, the Chinese leadership feels it must first change the status-quo through all available means necessary.
Since the spat over the first oil rig row broke out, the US has been vocal in condemning China’s behavior at sea.
But analysts have said US rhetoric about its strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific will not help defuse the tensions. On the contrary, it could aggravate the situation as Beijing sees America’s desire to contain its growth in everything it says.
It is in that context that the placement of the second oil rig “plainly means China is getting what it wants and it is not ready to stop,” Sun, the Washington-based analyst, said.
“And it means that the region and the US will have to decide what they would and could do, or they will simply accept China’s actions.”