China’s Oil Rig Gambit

China's dispatch of an oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam threatens armed conflict, and makes Washington a party whether it likes it or not.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Photo by Vietnam Coast Guard - AP
Photo by Vietnam Coast Guard - AP

As China and Vietnam enter the second week of their tense naval standoff in the South China Sea, three questions loom large: What is China trying to achieve, could this turn into a shooting war between the two historical enemies, and what does this all mean for the U.S. pivot to Asia?

The short answers: China watchers are puzzled by Beijing’s aggressive behavior, which seems both a departure from its previous approach to regional relations and potentially counterproductive; no guns have yet been drawn, but this could quickly turn violent; and U.S. desire to maintain influence in the region could hinge on how it handles a dispute between two communist countries — and on whether neighboring nations believe Washington is willing to go to the mat to stand up to a rising China.

China’s dispatch of a huge, billion-dollar offshore oil rig to waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi sparked the biggest conflict in years between the two countries. Over the weekend, Vietnamese officials said, Chinese ships sent to escort the oil rig rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese coast guard vessels sent to investigate. Tensions remain at a fever pitch, with Chinese officials claiming Friday, May 9, that Vietnamese ships and frogmen are interfering with the oil rig’s operations, though no further naval clashes have been confirmed.

The clash, the most serious since a similar showdown between China and Vietnam in 2007, has zoomed to the top of the agenda for the summit this weekend of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which in turn has infuriated Beijing. China doesn’t want any international groupings to discuss the maritime disputes, which it prefers to settle on a bilateral basis.

The Philippines, which has its own fresh dispute with China this week after Philippine Coast Guard officials arrested someone they said was an illegal Chinese fisherman, will seek to put maritime disputes at the heart of the ASEAN confab and seek progress on a code of conduct that could give countries a peaceful way to resolve territorial disputes. In response, Chinese state-controlled media attacked the Philippines for trying to "instigate tension" in the region by promising to bring up maritime disputes at the annual ASEAN summit.

The real bad guy, in Chinese eyes, isn’t the Philippines or Vietnam, however. Instead, Beijing says that the United States, by pursuing its pivot to Asia, has emboldened countries in the region to take an unnecessarily tougher and more provocative stance toward China than they had in recent years.

"It must be pointed out that the recent series of irresponsible and wrong comments from the United States, which neglect the facts about the relevant waters, have encouraged certain countries’ dangerous and provocative behavior," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at a regular briefing Friday, Reuters reported.

China was responding to tough talk from the U.S. State Department in the wake of news that the two countries had actually clashed over the oil rig’s deployment. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that China’s aggressive approach to advancing its claims over a broad stretch of the South China Sea "undermines peace and stability in the region."

On Thursday, after Chinese officials alleged that Vietnamese ships had attacked their vessels more than 170 times, Psaki reiterated that the United States sees China as the bad actor in this particular drama. "We think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here," she said.

She repeated the U.S. position at a briefing on Friday, saying that though the United States takes no position on the sovereignty dispute "any time there are provocative or unhelpful actions taken that put the maintenance of peace and stability at risk, I think that’s something that any country has the right to have concerns about."

For a nation that spent 30 years reassuring neighbors that it sought a "peaceful rise" in both economic and military power, China’s bold move to dispatch an oil rig to waters inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, and then defend it with about 80 coast guard and naval vessels, raises serious questions. Here’s a good one with which to start: Just what is China thinking?

"Something fundamental is taking place in China’s foreign-policy behavior," said David Lai, a China expert at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. "The Chinese are changing from a ‘low profile, avoid showdowns’ approach to one that is more proactive."

Lai has spent years teaching U.S. defense officials to understand Chinese strategy through the board game of wei qi, also known as Go in the West. He says China’s dispatch of the oil rig to disputed waters, which is hard to justify on commercial, oil-extraction grounds, makes more sense if understood in terms of the stones, or pieces, that are strategically placed on a wei qi board.

"When you put facts on the ground, it’s like you put a stone there, and that stone has impact. The game is all about position-based power," he said, drawing parallels between the seemingly immovable oil rig and Chinese designs in the South China Sea.

Other China experts chalk up Beijing’s aggressive behavior to concerns among the ruling Communist Party’s senior leadership that one of the main pillars of its legitimacy and popular support — the country’s roaring economy — could be wobbling amid signs of slowing growth and a potentially devastating real estate bubble.

"Domestic political stability is probably the single most important interest that the Chinese are pursuing with their regional maritime strategy," said Peter Dutton, the head of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.

He sees parallels with the way that China fanned the flames of nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment during a 2012 dispute over the Senkaku Islands. "It was an opportunity to create domestic political space by dangling the bright, shiny object of nationalism off to the side and changing the focus of the conversation," Dutton said.

The big question is whether the brinkmanship around the oil rig is mere posturing or has the potential to turn into something far more serious. There are a couple of reasons to worry: Vietnam, unlike the Philippines and Japan, has no formal defense agreement with the United States, which means Beijing doesn’t have to worry about Washington being obliged to ride to Hanoi’s rescue. At the same time, Vietnam and China have fought each other, on and off, for centuries.

More recently, Vietnam and China fought a major land war in 1979; they clashed over Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands, where the rig is, in 1974; and they collided in a deadly spat over disputed territories in the late 1980s that left scores of Vietnamese dead.

And while U.S. President Barack Obama made a point of reaffirming formal defense ties with Tokyo and Manila during his recent, four-country Asian tour, Vietnam has no such agreement with the United States. Until recently, in fact, man
y observers feared that U.S. defense obligations to Japan could suck the United States into a conflict with China because those obligations extend to the disputed Senkaku Islands claimed by both countries. Lately, however, China has made moves to lower the tension with Japan over those islands with diplomatic missions to Tokyo and fewer naval and air patrols of the disputed islands.

Could the naval skirmish between China and Vietnam move beyond water cannons to live fire?

"I think so," said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Asian maritime disputes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I’m not at all worried by shots being fired between China and the Philippines. But the Vietnamese have a different set of capabilities and they have a different history with China."

Given Vietnam’s desire to keep China from tapping what it sees as its national oil and gas wealth, and given the close proximity of so many ships, the jostling could "conceivably escalate to the use of armed force," Fravel said.

Dutton, meanwhile, says the combination of Vietnam’s vulnerability and China’s apparent belief that its vital national interests are at play in the oil dispute means that shots could soon be fired.

"It would seem to me that conflict is something that we all have to consider as a very real possibility," he said.

How does this affect the United States? In Japan, Obama went out of his way to stress that U.S. security guarantees extend to the Senkaku Islands, perhaps to forestall the kind of ambiguity that led to the 1950 invasion of South Korea, when U.S. officials intimated that Seoul was not covered by the U.S. security blanket.

But in the South China Sea, the United States has no defense accord or alliance with Vietnam, and it takes no position on which country actually owns the collection of islands in the Paracel chain, which form the basis for China’s insistence that its oil rig is operating lawfully. Washington has simply stressed, as it has for years, that it wants to preserve freedom of navigation in the area and that it urges states to use peaceful means to resolve disputes. Notably, Tokyo and Washington backed the Philippines’ decision to take China to court over their islands dispute.

Still, just because Washington doesn’t want to become directly involved in the South China Sea doesn’t mean it can avoid it.

"This is a real challenge for the United States. One of the objectives in the region is to reassure allies, partners, and friends. And if we don’t get involved, then reassuring allies, partners, and friends is called into question," Dutton of the Naval War College said.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP