South China Sea Standoff Likely Signals China’s ‘Push of Maritime Claims’ Amid Vietnam Backdown

An ongoing standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters of the South China Sea likely indicates that Beijing is prepared to push its maritime claims after Hanoi cancelled oil exploration activities in the area in recent years, according to experts.

On July 15, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a ship operated by the China Geological Survey, completed a 12-day survey of waters near the disputed Spratly Islands, according to a recent report from Washington-based think tank the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).

Nine Vietnamese vessels followed the China Coast Guard escorted Haiyang as it conducted its survey of the area, according to C4ADS, which included an oil block that Vietnam had licensed to Spanish firm Repsol.

The survey followed an incident on July 2 in which the China Coast Guard ship Haijing 35111 sailed in what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) described as a threatening manner towards Vietnamese vessels servicing the Japanese-owned Hakuryu-5 oil rig, located in Vietnam's Block 06.1, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Vietnam.

According to CSIS, the Hajing maneuvered between the vessels at high speed, passing within 100 meters (330 feet) of each ship and less than half a nautical mile from the rig.

Both incidents took place in disputed waters of the South China Sea that fall within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, the two think tanks said.

China has aggressively asserted its claims to the Spratlys and the rest of the South China Seawhich Vietnam refers to as the East Seabased on its so-called nine-dash demarcation line that encompasses some 90 percent of the waters, including territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.

If confirmed, the incidents would signal the highest tension in the area since the 2014 China-Vietnam oil rig crisis, when Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) moved an oil platform to waters near the disputed Paracel Islands and Vietnam attempted to prevent it from establishing a fixed position. The standoff prompted unprecedented anti-China protests in Vietnam.

While neither side has confirmed the incidents of recent weeks, Vietnam's foreign ministry on Tuesday issued a statement which said that without Vietnam's permission, all actions undertaken by foreign parties in Vietnamese waters have no legal effect, and constitute encroachments in Vietnamese waters, and violations of international law.

At a regular press conference on Wednesday, China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang acknowledged that there had been an incident with Vietnam, without providing details, and called on Hanoi to earnestly respect China's sovereignty, rights, and jurisdiction over the relevant waters, and not take any actions that could complicate the situation.

The statements came after Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited the headquarters of the Vietnam Coast Guard in Hanoi on July 11, as the Haiyang was conducting its survey, and urged sailors to stay vigilant and ready to fight, according to an announcement on the Coast Guard's website.

On the same day, the chairwoman of Vietnam's National Assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, met with her Chinese counterpart, Li Zhanshu, in Beijing, according to a report by China's Xinhua news agency, which said the two officials agreed to jointly safeguard peace and stability at sea.

'Shoe' on China's foot

Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, told RFA's Vietnamese Service that if it is confirmed the Haiyang was conducting a survey off of the Spratlys westernmost reef, known as Vanguard Bank, this would be a very sensitive area for Vietnam.

The waters around Vanguard Bank fall within Vietnam's 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, Thayer said, and contain reserves estimated at around 45 million barrels of oil and 172 billion cubic feet of gas that are thought to be commercially viable for up to 10 years after production begins.

Vietnam controls the area through three service support structures, each with a helipad mounted on a steel base, he said, but the structures are isolated and difficult to protect.

Hanoi cancelled oil exploration activities in the area in 2017 and 2018 after Beijing charged that it had violated agreements reached by high-level leaders, and Thayer suggested that China is now looking to exploit what Vietnam has left behind.

Now, in 2019, the 'shoe' is on China's foot, he said.

If developments in July are confirmed, it would indicate that China is prepared to push its maritime claims in the face of a Vietnamese backdown, he said.

Thayer also warned that if reports of a standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels are confirmed by the Vietnamese government and media, they will likely provoke widespread anti-China protests in Vietnam similar in scale to ones that rocked the country last year, when the National Assembly considered a draft law on Economic Zones amid rumors that Chinese interests would be granted 99-year leases.

Gregory B. Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS, noted that the area where the Haiyang was surveying is likely the same territory where CNOOC announced nine oil and gas lots, and offered bids in 2012.

Beijing claims sovereignty over all of the Spratlys and says it has the right to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding them, and while the lots are inefficient for extracting gas and oil, China does not care about [resources] there, Poling said.

If they can get a foreign company to bid on one of the 2012 lots it will be a diplomatic victory for China. They can say that foreign companies acknowledge their claim to sovereignty.

Muted reactions

In the meantime, experts suggested that both China and Vietnam would rather keep silent about the July incidents as part of a bid to maintain normal relations and prevent public unrest.

They are showing that the two sides are continuing to 'play together,' and defusing what could lead to a stressful situation, Hoang Viet, a member of Vietnam's East Sea Research Fund, told RFA.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese government has also refrained from providing any information that would anger China.

Viet said that National Assembly chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan's visit to China is probably just a formality to explain the expectations of an upcoming visit by Vietnamese leaders to the U.S., and not connected to the recent events in the South China Sea.

On this occasion, China also will warn and remind Vietnam that China is ready to take action if anything goes wrong, he said.

Thayer agreed, and said that until more information becomes available, it would be unwise to jump to conclusions about the timing of her visit.

It seems unlikely that China would want to embarrass [Ngan] one of Vietnam's top party leaders, by staging an incident in the Spratly archipelago during her visit, he said.

Nevertheless, [Chinese] President Xi Jinping reiterated China's long-standing policy that the two countries should safeguard maritime peace and stability with concrete actions.

Beijing has been fortifying the islands it claims in the South China Sea with weaponry, runways and deep water berths, and has also created artificial islands by dredging massive amounts of sand.

The two countries have a history of conflict over territory in the disputed waters, including a March 1988 confrontation at Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys that saw Chinese vessels sink several Vietnamese ships, killing 64 Vietnamese soldiers and wounding 11 others.

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