The standoff between China and Vietnam over an oil rig under construction in the South China Sea has escalated to dangerous levels, the New York Times reports. A few days ago, CNOOC, the Chinese oil company, began establishing the oil rig just 120 nautical miles from Vietnam, in waters both Hanoi and Beijing claim. Vietnam protested and dispatched a naval flotilla to the area to make its message quite clear. According to Vietnamese officials, the Chinese ships then blasted it with water cannons, injuring the sailors, and rammed two coast guard vessels.
Yet China’s actions may have nothing to do with oil, a Reuters report suggests:
An oil industry official in China said the deployment of the rig owned by China’s CNOOC oil company to waters near Vietnam appeared to be a political decision rather than a commercial one.
“This reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the U.S. strategy on Asia,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“It is not commercially driven. It is also not like CNOOC has set a big exploration blueprint for the region.”
Whether purposely timed or not, Beijing has escalated its rhetoric and backed up words with action ever since President Obama’s tour of East Asia. “It is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent,” warned one editorial in China Daily as soon as President Obama returned to the U.S. “Ganging up with its troublemaking allies, the U.S. is presenting itself as a security threat to China.” The editorial also called U.S. actions in East Asia “malicious.”
Vietnam vowed to do everything in its power to defend its ocean territory, while remaining within the bounds of international law. China’s rhetoric has been decidedly more aggressive. One editorial urged Chinese forces to give Vietnam a “lesson it deserves to get…. We believe Hanoi has no guts to attack China’s drilling platform directly.” For now, dozens of ships from both countries are staring each other down in the seas surrounding the contested oil rig, and no shots have been fired—yet.