Vietnam recently invited a large group of foreign reporters onto coast guard vessels operating around disputed islands, in something of a break in the state’s usual restrictions on press access. A New York Times reporter invited onto the Vietnamese vessels describes the scene in the waters around China’s now-removed billion dollar oil rig:
About 20 miles from the rig, two vessels the Vietnamese Coast Guard said were Chinese Navy missile corvettes, one with the hull number 751, came into view to the north. Vietnam says there were about four to six Chinese military vessels among the more than 100 Chinese ships patrolling around the rig, along with Chinese Coast Guard and fishing boats.
Some briefly pursued the Vietnamese ship, then pulled off. Vietnamese sailors say the pursuits become more heated the closer one gets to the rig. On our trip, CSB-8003 could only get about 13 miles from the rig before a ship from the China Maritime Safety Administration blocked its path and forced a retreat.
The post is worth a read in full to get a sense of just how tense the situation was a month ago, before China moved the rig—and how tense it could easily become again.
Hanoi is making an obvious PR move here to curry favor with the Western public. This comes at a time when it is already shoring up relations with the likes of Japan and India, which are each key regional powers and Western allies. Not coincidentally, they are also both Chinese opponents.
This is the strategic environment that China has created in the region, and that it seems intent on perpetuating. As the rest of the world is transfixed by the Middle East and Ukraine, the standoff in Asia remains as real as ever.