The World’s Most Dangerous Water Fight
Vietnam and China are coming to blows over oil. Will it spark a dangerous new era of power politics in Asia?
NOTE: This story was updated late Wednesday to include the State Dept. release on the situation.
China’s muscular efforts to extend its control over broad reaches of the South China Sea have already clashed — literally — with neighboring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that appear increasingly determined to push back against Beijing.
Just days after Beijing dispatched an oil rig to waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, Chinese naval vessels apparently rammed and damaged at least one Vietnamese patrol boat in the area. Though no shots were reported to have been fired, Vietnamese media said Chinese ships used water cannons to enforce an unusually large three-mile no-go zone the Chinese have established around the rig.
The incident, the latest escalation in a regional flashpoint already primed for conflict, underscores the lengths China seems prepared to go to defend its ambitious territorial claims as well as the unintended consequences of China’s take-no-prisoners approach to foreign relations. More specifically, experts on the region said that China risks creating a coalition of the exasperated among the oft-bickering nations of Southeast Asia who are increasingly speaking out against Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims.
What’s more, by picking a fight with Vietnam, China could complicate its relationship with Russia. Moscow has assiduously cultivated closer ties with Vietnam in part to hedge against Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia. Russia will finance and build the construction of new nuclear reactors in Vietnam, which will tie the two countries together in an energy relationship for decades, for example.
The two countries are even closer when it comes to defense. Hanoi’s most ambitious recent arms purchase was the acquisition of six modern, Kilo-class Russian submarines — meant explicitly to give Vietnam more naval muscle to deal with China’s rapidly growing navy. Russia has sold Vietnam a number of other naval vessels, including frigates and small craft, and is trying to lock up a supply arrangement for its own ships at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval facility. The moves are widely seen as a part of a concerted Russian bid to rebuild its influence in the region and check Chinese expansion in Asia. China and Russia have had a sharp geopolitical rivalry for years along their huge border, and growing Chinese influence in Central and Southeast Asia has Russia nervous about China becoming too dominant in Asia.
The new clashes came Saturday and Sunday, when Vietnamese patrol boats sailed to an area of the South China Sea about 140 miles off the Vietnamese coast, but which lies in waters also claimed by Beijing, to protest the arrival of China’s first deepwater oil rig, the massive, billion-dollar Haiyang Shiyou 981.
Chinese naval and coast guard vessels sent to escort the rig outnumbered and outgunned the Vietnamese force, police officials said at a press conference in Hanoi, and pounced on the Vietnamese ships. Officials in Hanoi said the most serious incident, the high-speed ramming of one ship on Saturday, took place about 10 miles from the rig. (Vietnamese officials presented photos of the incidents, available here.)
On Tuesday, in a separate incident, the Philippine coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing vessel that Manila says was illegally fishing for endangered species in its waters. Philippine complaints about the encroachment of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters lying between the two countries were one of the driving forces behind a landmark legal case Manila brought against Beijing in The Hague in March.
Even before the naval incidents became public, China and Vietnam had traded rhetorical barbs in the wake of the deployment of the drilling rig. Chinese state media urged the country to teach Vietnam a "lesson" by taking a hard line. After the ramming, Vietnam’s foreign minister again asked his Chinese counterpart to remove the contentious rig, which he called a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty. He also said that Vietnam "will take all suitable and necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," according to a release from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
A spokeswoman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that Vietnam should stop interfering with what China views as legal activities and denounced the Philippine detention of the fishing vessel. The spokeswoman dismissed comments from the U.S. State Department, which on Tuesday called China’s deployment of the drilling rig "unhelpful and provocative," saying that the United States "is in no position to make irresponsible remarks on China’s affairs," Xinhua reported.
The State Department responded late Wednesday, sharply rebuking China for the episode. "China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time in waters disputed with Vietnam is provocative and raises tensions," State Dept. spokesperson Jen Pskai said in a release. "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." The United States, she said, is "very concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels operating in this area," and reiterated U.S. desires for maritime disputes to be settled according to international law.
China’s resort to more aggressive tactics, including the use of both naval and coast guard vessels to protect its drilling rig, seems to be boomeranging on Beijing in a way that the country’s earlier, less overt moves into disputed seas did not.
The Philippines set a precedent earlier this year when it sued China over Beijing’s snatch and grab of several specks of land in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Vietnamese officials, their nationalism at a high pitch with the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, have deployed both strong words and strong vessels to push back against what they see as Chinese intransigence.
Other countries in the region, notably Indonesia and Malaysia, also seem to be moving away from the neutral stance they had traditionally maintained toward the maritime disputes, and are now vocally protesting Chinese behavior.
Indonesian defense officials, though not ones from its foreign ministry, have publicly expressed concern about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak used a joint appearance in the administrative capital of Putrajaya last month to stress the need for all countries to preserve freedom of navigation and avoid the use of force in maritime disputes, a clear, if unstated reference to China.
"Indonesia has been more outspoken, and the U.S.-Malaysia joint statement during Obama’s visit went farther on maritime issues than most expected," said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security. "One likely byproduct of this incident will be enhanced coordination among the claimants to different areas of the South China Sea, especially the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, which is already occurring in unprecedented ways."
What’s less clear is the impact that China’s aggressive behavior will have on its newly improved relations with Moscow. The two countries are close to finally signing a huge energy deal that would see natural gas exported from Russia’s far east to China’s energy-hungry northeast. Both countries need that: Russia’s European markets are gun shy of relying too much on energy exports from Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, and China wants to find reliable supplies of affordable energy.
Russian-China ties are advancing in other areas, as well: The two countries will hold joint naval maneuvers this month in the East China Sea, another body of water where Chinese claims collide with those of another country, in this case Japan. During his Asia swing last month, Obama reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are a source of fierce brinksmanship between Tokyo and Beijing.
China’s aggressive approach to disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea could make its rapprochement with Moscow tougher to pull off, said Ratner. "China’s bullying around Asia is going to put limits on how close it can get with Russia, because some of the victims of that bullying are close with Russia," he said.