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Security tensions in the South China Sea have flared up again when Vietnam’s naval vessels collided with Chinese ships on Wednesday, May 7, in a serious attempt of Hanoi to prevent Beijing from stationing a US$1-billion oil rig, HD-981, in the Northwest Triton Island of the Paracels.
For Vietnam, the location of China’s oil rig belongs to Hanoi’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (EEZ/CS). Therefore, Vietnam considers the oil drilling activities of HD-981 as an apparent derogation not only of the sovereignty of Vietnam but also of the United Nations Convention of the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).
Both Vietnam and China are parties to UNCLOS. Vietnam warned China that it would take “all necessary measures” to compel China to remove the oil rig.
For China, however, the activities of HD-981 were normal petroleum activities of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in China’s territorial waters. China warned Vietnam not to disrupt CNOOC’s oil drilling projects in the Paracels, which the Chinese call the Xisha Islands.
The oil rig incident started on May 1, 2014, at around 5:22 am, when Vietnam discovered the deep water activities of HD-981, which was supported by 3 Chinese vessels. The location of the oil rig is around 130 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam and 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Ly Son Island, which represents the 1 base point of Vietnam. This point falls within Vietnam’s petroleum Lot. 143 that belongs to its 200 nautical miles EEZ/CS.
To protect the activities of HD-981, China has deployed at least 80 vessels in the waters surrounding Triton Island.
Tensions in the South China Sea are high again as the oil rig incident in the Paracel Islands can provide the tipping point of military encounters between the two parties. This military situation is something that all littoral states and user states in the South China Sea do not want to develop.
But China and Vietnam had the history of military battle in the Paracels in 1974, which started when Vietnam’s navy attempted to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the waters surrounding the Paracels. China retaliated by sending the warships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the contested island.
China won the battle resulting in China’s control of the Paracels. The battle caused the death of more than 50 Vietnamese soldiers and almost 20 Chinese soldiers. But Vietnam never surrendered its claims to the Paracels. In fact, Vietnam entered into direct negotiations with China to settle their territorial disputes peacefully in accordance with existing international laws, particularly the UNCLOS.
Since China started the operation of HD-981, Vietnam has conducted 6 bilateral meetings with China at various levels both in Hanoi and Beijing. But China remains intransigent in its position and reiterates its stand that the location of the activities of HD-981 is under the sovereign jurisdiction of China.
There is no doubt that the ongoing oil rig incident in the Paracels is destroying both countries’ strategic trust with each other. It is therefore imperative for Vietnam and China to rebuild their strategic trust if they want to maintain their good political relationship.
Otherwise, the deterioration of their political relationship will push Vietnam to follow the international arbitration option chosen by the Philippines. Vietnam can either join the Philippines in the case or submit a separate case.
If China continues its current activities in the Paracels without let-up, it is providing a pretext for key countries in Southeast Asia to unite in pushing harder for the immediate conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, particularly in the context of China’s activities in the Second Thomas Shoal being claimed by the Philippines, James Shoal being claimed by Malaysia, and Natuna Island being claimed by Indonesia.
What will Beijing do if Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam build a united front to deal with China in the South China Sea? Will China pursue strategic restraint or will it push more strategic assertions of its sovereignty claims?
Let’s continue to watch how this whole saga in the South China Sea will unfold. – Rappler.com
Rommel Banlaoi is the vice president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and Head of the Center for Intelligence National Security Studies (CINSS) of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).