China is moving a drilling rig out of hotly contested territory, but only after wrapping up exploratory drilling that found signs of oil and gas. Since May, China’s billion-dollar rig had been drilling near the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. The presence of the rig ratcheted up tensions in the region, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
Vietnam protested Chinese drilling in the area after it began in early May and had sent coast-guard vessels to confront the rig. Dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese maritime vessels had amassed near the disputed rig, with each side claiming its ships had been violently rammed by the other’s.The rig’s deployment there drew criticism from Washington, which has called it provocative. The episode touched off anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in May, in which five people were killed and hundreds of factories owned by Chinese and other foreign companies were looted and burned.
The removal is unlikely to be a sign of de-escalation: China maintains that it is not moving the rig because of international pressure, and that it still has the right to drill in the disputed territory. In fact, this may be a smart move on Beijing’s part, according to the FT:
Wrapping up drilling and removing the rig allows China to meet Vietnamese diplomats and curtail Vietnam’s efforts to engage support from the US or Japan, said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the University of South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, who specialises in South China Sea issues. It also allows China to frame the dispute as a bilateral issue before a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Myanmar.“This completely changes the dynamics,” he said. “Vietnam which has been biting its nails will now have to climb back to the negotiating table.”
The big news from the South China Sea today will probably be that the rig found oil and gas, not that it moved away.