China-Vietnam standoff at Paracels hardens
Tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea flared up on Wednesday as a Chinese flotilla of up to 80 boats and 30 Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels clashed after the Vietnamese tried to stop China from installing a deepwater drilling rig near the Paracel islands, which are controlled by Beijing but claimed by Vietnam.
The collisions were sparked by Beijing’s announcement that it was moving the rig into the area. The confrontations are considered the most dangerous between the two countries, with dozens of boats facing off in the area.
The US Department of State called the Chinese decision to park the drilling rig in the area “provocative.”
“This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region,” state department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on BBC.
“We are also very concerned about the dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels operation in this area,” Psaki said, calling on all parties to operate in a “safe and professional manner.”
The events, she added, highlighted the need for claimants to disputed areas to clarify their claims in accordance with international law.
According to BBC, Vietnam claimed it had sent maritime police and fisheries vessels, and shown footage (shown by BBC) of Chinese ships ramming its vessels. Vietnam said six of its maritime officials were injured.
China, on the other hand, said “disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China’s sovereign rights.”
Reuters reported that Vietnam on Wednesday said a Chinese vessel intentionally rammed two of its ships in the disputed South China Sea where Beijing had deployed a giant oil rig, sending tensions spiraling in the region.
The foreign ministry in Hanoi said the collisions took place on Sunday and caused considerable damage to the Vietnamese ships.
“On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels,” said Tran Duy Hau, a foreign ministry official. “Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels. Water cannon was used. Six other ships were also hit.”
The Chinese foreign ministry claimed that Vietnamese ships rammed Chinese vessels as many as 171 times over days. The claim followed accusations by Vietnam that Chinese ships rammed its vessels.
Dozens of Navy and Coast Guard vessels from both countries were in the area where the rig was deployed. “No shots have been fired yet,” a Vietnamese Navy official told reporters. “Vietnam won’t fire unless China fires first.”
The confrontations came days after US President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline Washington’s commitment to defend its allies in the region, including the Philippines and Japan, should the territorial disputes in the South China erupt into conflict.
In a commentary for Reuters, Ernest Bower and Gregory Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank called the implications of the rig row “significant.”
The fact that the Chinese moved ahead in placing the rig immediately after Obama’s visit to four Asian countries in late April underlines Beijing’s (intentions) to test the resolve of Vietnam, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, its neighbors and Washington, they said.
Bejing may be attempting “to substantially change the status quo” while perceiving Washington to be distracted by developments in Ukraine, Nigeria and Syria, they said.
“If China believes Washington is distracted, in an increasingly insular mood, and unwilling to back up relatively strong security assertions made to Japan and the Philippines and repeated during Obama’s trip, then developments south of the Paracel Islands could have long-term regional and global consequences,” they said.
The tensions between China and Vietnam spiked on May 2 when state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) moved its deepwater drilling rig in the South China Sea to a site about 30 kilometers from disputed islands known as the Paracels, in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China.
China said Vietnam dispatched 35 ships to the area in an effort to stop it from installing the rig, while Vietnam said China deployed about 80 vessels.
According to The Associated Press (AP), the drilling rig was escorted by a “large flotilla of naval vessels,” in the face of Beijing’s announcement that “no foreign ships would be allowed within a 5-km radius of the rig.”
AP added that Vietnam sent up to 29 armed naval and coast guard vessels to the area as a “show of force” to urge Beijing to withdraw the rig. The rig’s location is 216 km off Vietnam’s coast and within the 370-km exclusive economic zone that Vietnam claims under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
China has demanded the withdrawal of Vietnamese flotilla flanking the rig and Vietnam has demanded the removal the rig from the disputed area. Both have hardened their positions, and there are no signs either side will back off.
The New York Times reported that the movement of the drilling rig to the area “was among the most assertive steps China has taken to solidify claims over both the South China Sea, one of the world’s major trading routes, and the East China Sea.”
China also appears to have tightened its hold over a reef called Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, part of the China Sea within the Philippines 370-km exclusive economic zone.
China claims that its oil drilling operations are legal because they are in its “inherent territory.”
Reuters quoted Ian Storey, a Singapore-based regional security analyst, as saying that he did not believe Vietnam was not in any mood to back down, despite the pressures of facing its historic foe.
“We can anticipate several months of high tensions, which I believe could be the most serious crisis in Sino-Vietnamese relations since the 1979 border war,” Storey, of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said. He said there was no easy path for negotiations to sort out overlapping exclusive economic zones, as China and Vietnam have done in the Gulf of Tonkin—one theoretical way out of the crisis.
“It is quite a legal knot,” he said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.