It’s not an “ultimate weapon” like the Death Star from the Star Wars movie franchise, but the giant oil rig that China has parked just 140 miles away from Hanoi, is equally as ominous.
Much as the Galactic Empire used the Death Star’s presence to keep the weak in line, China’s decision to position the rig in the South China Sea in an area claimed by Vietnam is a demonstration of its regional muscle and resolve to assert its territorial claims.
However, while Star Wars’ Alderaan had the full support of the Rebel Alliance, Vietnam has few allies it can turn to as it demands that China pull back the rig.
Despite Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, making an impassioned plea for support at an ASEAN summit meeting in Myanmar on Sunday, no country voiced support or even criticism of China, evidently, in fear of offending the Empire, er, Beijing. Most ASEAN members have close economic and political ties with China and see confrontation with the Asian heavyweight as ill-advised. Bilateral trade between China and ASEAN reached US$444 billion last year.
Referring to the oil rig’s location, Dung said, “This extremely dangerous action has been directly endangering peace, stability, security, and marine safety.”
The group’s refusal to weigh in appeared to be a victory for China and underlines how there does not yet appear to be a willingness or ability to address the territorial disputes in the South China Sea collectively, said the New York Times.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, an area covering 2 million square kilometers that is estimated to possess vast oil and gas reserves as large as 200 billion barrels of crude oil and 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
“The facts prove that Vietnam is trying to rope in other parties and put pressure on China, [but] will not achieve its aims,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news conference on Monday, said Reuters. “We hope that Vietnam can see the situation clearly, calmly face up to reality, and stop harassing the Chinese operations.”
As Vietnam attempts to muster up international support, it can do little more than engage China in the maritime equivalent of squirt gun fights and bumper cars.
A Vietnamese patrol boat and several Chinese vessels blasted each other with water cannons on Monday, Associated Press reported. Both sides have accused the other of ramming ships.
Tensions remain at a fever pitch, with Chinese officials claiming Friday, May 9, that Vietnamese ships and frogmen were interfering with the oil rig’s operations, said Foreign Policy.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the United States and other nations involved in navigating in the South and East China Seas were deeply concerned about the “aggressive” Chinese action, said AP. That’s not saying much.
Kerry promised Vietnam US$18 million in maritime security assistance, including five fast patrol boats, during a visit in December.
“No region can be secure in the absence of effective law enforcement in territorial waters,” Kerry said at the time, according to Fox News.
Reuters notes that Chinese oil industry sources say hydrocarbon reserves under the rig’s current location remain unproven, and point to political, rather than commercial, interests driving its placement on May 2 by China’s state-run oil company CNOOC.
Other experts agree. M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s territorial issues, said the China National Offshore Oil Company’s decision to move oil rig HD-981 was a premeditated move of territorial assertion.
“Economically, the area where the rig will drill has few proven or probable hydrocarbon reserves,” Fravel told NYT. “Moreover, the rig, which cost US$1 billion to build, is extremely expensive to operate on a daily basis, which begs the questions why CNOOC would explore in an area with uncertain prospects.”
Fravel noted that “China may also be seeking to test the renewed US resolve to ‘pivot’ to Asia”.
With the recent history of tensions in the region, the risk of escalation is real.
Like Luke Skywalker said to Han Solo as the Millennium Falcon approached the Death Star in Star Wars, episode 4: “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.”
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