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Game of Thrones
China to Vietnam: If There's Gas in the South China Sea, It's Ours

Chinese oil industry experts claimed yesterday that there is a good chance the oil rig that has caused such a kerfuffle in Southeast Asia is highly likely to strike significant oil and gas reserves. This would be China’s first viable energy find in the area. And of course, Vietnam would get none of it.

Reuters reports:

“The place where the rig is drilling at the moment is likely to be a gas field. China conducted three-dimensional geological surveys before moving the rig there,” said Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese government think-tank on the southern island of Hainan.

“China is pretty confident … otherwise they wouldn’t start drilling,” added Wu, a leading expert on China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

China’s confidence is likely to further annoy Hanoi. Vietnam owns two exploration blocks to the west of China’s rig; China’s nine-dashed line, which Beijing says delineates its territory, cuts through them. Vietnam has said it is considering taking China to court over its aggressive behavior in the area.

If that happens, Vietnam will become the second nation to take China to court over the South China Sea disputes. The Philippines’ case against Beijing is currently winding its way through a United Nations arbitration tribunal. Both countries have, in recent weeks, moved to put aside their differences to take China on from a position of greater strength.

They’re not alone.

Japan has taken a more active role in the South China Sea disputes. (Of course, Japan has its own territorial disagreement with China in the East China Sea.) As the AP reports, Japan is hoping to accelerate plans to supply Vietnam with advanced coast guard ships, which Hanoi would presumably use to defend its South China Sea claims against encroachers like China. Tokyo and Manila are already far along with a similar deal. Separately, as long as Shinzo Abe’s administration succeeds in changing Japan’s defense laws, Tokyo is planning to equip Australia with advanced submarine technology and perhaps a “fleet of fully engineered, stealthy vessels.” Though Australia isn’t embroiled in a territorial dispute against China like Japan and Vietnam, the deal with Tokyo represents the latest example of Abe’s plan to build an alliance of countries that stand against Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. And for that matter, India, too, has signaled a willingness to join that alliance.

Forty years ago, China and Vietnam went to war over islands in the South China Sea. What we are seeing now is eerily similar to that conflict. Back then, Vietnam appealed to the United States for support and military assistance in its fight against China, but the Washington was in the process of opening relations with Beijing and chose not to take sides. This time around, Hanoi has been quiet about deepening its relationship with the United States, but not so reserved when contemplating regional alliances with neighboring countries that are similarly worried about Chinese aggression.

This coalition is likely to become starkly visible on Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where defense and security officials from Asia and the West will meet, some of them for the first time together. Shinzo Abe will deliver a keynote. He is expected to call for peace and stability in the region, and condemn aggression by certain countries. This will go down well among several Southeast Asian countries: “We welcome Japan’s…plan to play a larger security role in the region,” a senior Philippine defense official told Reuters. The Bataan Death March, it seems, is no longer relevant.

Seismic developments are afoot in East Asian geopolitics.

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  • S.C. Schwarz

    Sadly, we have Obama for a president at this critical moment. He won’t lift a finger.

    • Thirdsyphon

      To protect the undersea natural gas claims of Vietnam? Why should he? The United States has no obligation to Vietnam, and no American interests are at stake. Vietnam could have been a treaty ally of the United States, but Hanoi chose to throw its lot in with the Communist bloc instead. These decisions have consequences, and however painful those consequences might turn out to be for Vietnam, they’re apt to be instructive for others.

      • S.C. Schwarz

        As you yourself said below, the US has a keen interest in preserving the balance of power in the South China Sea, but there is no reason why we need a “forceful intervention” to do that. For example, a simple visit by Chuck Hagel to Hanoi to discuss “military cooperation” would send a powerful signal. We could open discussions with Vietnam on selling them some up-to-date jet fighters. We could open discussions on refurbishing our old base at Cam Ranh Bay and basing some of our ships there. The point would be to signal to China that their aggressive actions have costs.

      • Barbara West

        It’s not pertinent to review history far back, instead of moving forward with how to address Chinese aggressions. But, you brought it up so here are facts:
        . The original group of 68 Vietnamese ragtag soldiers were trained by the US to fight the Japanese occupiers in 1943. One of them was Vo Nguyen Giap who eventually became their legendary general that defeated France and the US. That army is now the People’s Army of Vietnam. After claiming independence but fearing France may return, Ho Chi Minh (with helps from an American officer) drafted a letter to H. Truman asking for assistance without a reply. The US in turn, helped France to recolonize Vietnam paying 90% costs and supplied bombers. That letter was a gift to Obama when Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang paid a visit in 2013. Hanoi did not turn to the Communist bloc. The US drove them to that destination and decisions have consequences (58,000 Americans and 2 millions Vietnamese).
        . In 1974, less than 2 years after Mao-Nixon’s pingpong diplomacy, China gathered 26 Navy ships (25% of their Navy at that time) to invade Paracel islands chain from S. Vietnam: our treaty ally and war partner. Some of these heavily armed Chinese ships traveled almost 1,000 miles through the US 7th fleet without S. Vietnam being notified. As the the result, 3 of the 6 S. Vietnamese ships were outgunned and sank. This very exalt islands group that China is now used to justify for its oil rig’s drilling as it’s 120 miles from Vietnamese shore and 20 miles from “their Paracel”.

  • Government Drone

    Oh, I’m sure he’ll have a red line or two, if the occasion warrants.

  • Thirdsyphon

    The United States is keenly interested in preserving the balance of power in the South China Sea, but forcefully intervening on behalf of Vietnam would send a confusing message that Washington is neither strongly motivated nor obliged to back up. That’s presumably why China decided to pick on Vietnam in the first place, instead of on an American treaty ally like the Phillipines or Japan.

    We haven’t heard the last of this from China, but events are making it clear that China has more to worry about in the region than just the U.S.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    This is such a wasted opportunity, America should be using Chinese belligerence to negotiate a favorable economic and military alliance with all of China’s neighbors. Instead we have the historically weak Obama, who hasn’t a clue what a strategic foreign policy even looks like.

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