Chinese oil rig’s return in South China Sea, off coast of Vietnam, touches nerve in Hanoi

Beijing’s deployment of Haiyangshihou 981 in 2014 caused a diplomatic crisis between two neighbours, so was is it back?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 3:30pm

China’s gigantic oil rig, Haiyangshihou 981, is no stranger to the Vietnamese.

Its latest appearance near the Southeast Asian nation’s coast renewed focus on crucial question: how should Vietnam deal with its aggressive yet economically important neighbour without angering it?

Analysts said the recent deployment of the oil rig, together with test flights of civilian planes over the disputed Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, were part of China’s vigorous efforts to further establish its presence in the area.

READ MORE: Vietnam warns Beijing over oil rig activities in South China Sea

However, the timing of the deployment – coinciding with the Vietnamese Communist Party’s meeting to pick new leaders – has touched a nerve in the country.

“Beijing is trying to give a warning to the next leadership,” said a Vietnamese diplomat, referring to the recent sighting of the oil rig at the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin and civilian flights to a newly completed airfield at Fiery Cross Reef.

The reef is controlled by China, but also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The deep-water rig, which in 2014 caused the worst diplomatic crisis between the two neighbours in decades, occupies a disputed area that is yet to be delimited, according to the Vietnamese foreign ministry.

Hanoi has called on Beijing to stop drilling and withdraw the rig, but the Chinese foreign ministry has insisted it was operating in China’s “undisputed” waters.

According to China’s Maritime Safety Administration, the gigantic structure will remain in the area until March 10.

READ MORE: Vietnam’s ‘stormy’ leadership tussle bares nation’s conflict over liberalism and taking a hardline over South China Sea dispute, analysts say

The rig was now located about 66 nautical miles from Hainan Island and 110 nautical miles from the coast of Danang, according to Taylor Fravel, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Vietnamese diplomat said the deployment violated an agreement between the two leaderships’ that no unilateral actions should be taken in the area before both sides could resolve the border dispute in the area outside the Gulf of Tonkin.

Decades of negotiations between the two neighbours have resulted in only a small delineation of the disputed areas in the Gulf.

Analysts said Beijing had been pushing for joint development, but Hanoi preferred to resolve the territorial dispute first.

“Perhaps by deploying the oil rig to the area, Vietnam would be forced to be more forthcoming on joint development,” said Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Fravel said the deployment most likely reflected China’s plans to develop offshore oil and gas, rather than sending a message aimed at the congress, which this week will decide a new leadership that will govern for the next five years.

“Likewise, the test flights are a natural progression of the land reclamation and development projects that China has undertaken on the features it occupies in the Spratly Islands,” Fravel said.

READ MORE: China moves controversial oil rig closer to Vietnam coast in disputed South China Sea

The reclamations have drawn protests from Vietnam and other countries. Relations between the two ideological allies nosedived in 2014 after the same oil rig was parked at an area much closer to Vietnam coast than its current location.

Although the two sides have patched things up, mutual distrust lingers.

As Vietnam’s Communist elites gather in Hanoi this week to discuss the country’s future, analysts said Beijing’s ill-timed behaviour highlighted the dilemma of living with an aggressive neighbour.

“It will highlight the South China Sea disputes as a major security concern for Vietnam and it will heighten the Vietnamese perception of China as threat,” said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

However, unlike the 2014 crisis, which saw an unprecedented scale of violent protests in Vietnam, Hanoi has also put a leash on Vietnamese media coverage of the oil rig deployment this time, allowing only reports based on information released by the foreign ministry, said Carl Thayer, an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales.

“I don’t think the [Vietnamese] leadership wants to confront China, they want to work with China,” Thayer said.