A Cabbage Grows in Asia
China Thumbs Nose at Vietnam Again

Call it the “cabbage strategy” or the Chinese two-step: once again—slowly, surely, and slyly—Beijing is raising the temperature in the South China Sea after having backed off earlier.

China had sent an oil rig near the Paracels last year to do exploratory drilling, but had pulled it back last July amid rising clamor from its neighbors. Now it has sent another rig a hundred miles off of Vietnam’s coast to drill again. Reuters:

Experts estimate the drilling site is about 104 miles (167 km) east of the Vietnam coast. The $1-billion rig will remain there from June 25 until August 20, the statement said, telling ships to stay 2,000 m (6,562 ft) away for safety reasons.

Vietnam’s maritime authorities were monitoring the rig’s placement, the website of the country’s state-controlled Tuoi Tre newspaper on Friday quoted unidentified sources as saying.

Recall the official definition of the “cabbage strategy”, as explained by a top Chinese general in 2013:

…assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival. The strategy relies on a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground.

Much like with the island-building in the South China Sea, these kinds of moves are calculated to be just below the threshold of triggering a response from China’s adversaries. The key word here, however, is calculation: the strategy succeeds only insofar as the provocations are calibrated just right.

The head of Vietnam’s Communist Party is heading to Washington soon, and with these kinds of provocations fresh in his mind, he is sure to have China at the top of the agenda. Taken alongside the recent joint drills between Japan, the Philippines, and the United States around the Spratlys, as well as the noises coming out of Tokyo recently, we could be seeing the thousand tiny cuts administered by China add up to a wound that its neighbors can no longer ignore.

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