If China aimed to make a big splash in the South China Sea without wetting the US security umbrella, it could not have chosen a better adversary than Vietnam. Days after US President Barack Obama headed home after his Asian “pivot” tour last month, China made its most aggressive move yet. It towed a massive oil rig straight into Vietnamese waters — to drill, it said blandly, for oil. Vietnam, a famously plucky nation, is caught between a rock and a hard place in the Asia Pacific neighbourhood. It is not an American ally, and unlike Japan or the Philippines, cannot count on US military support. On the other hand, it has fought off several Chinese efforts to colonise it over centuries and its victory over the mighty US in the Vietnam War is the stuff of military legend.
The deepwater rig, which cost China $1 billion to build, was drilling in the placid waters off Hong Kong before it was escorted by a flotilla of 80 Chinese ships and Coast Guard vessels over a week ago. Taken by surprise, the much-poorer Vietnamese sent fewer and smaller boats to try to disrupt the operation. Both sides rammed their vessels into each others’ but the Chinese vessels were much bigger. They also used water cannons. No shots have been fired so far but the first melee injured about nine sailors, Vietnam said. Obviously, the move was in the works even during Obama’s visit.
When the dust settled, the rig was positioned 120-150 km off Vietnam’s coast, close to the disputed Paracel islands. Vietnamese media reported that three Chinese naval vessels were guarding the rig within a “10-15 mile nautical zone”. Last weekend, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted top Coast Guard official Colonel Ngo Ngoc saying that low-flying Chinese fighter planes had also been spotted in the area. Chinese forces occupied the disputed Paracel islands in the chaos of the Vietnam War, when China helped drive pro-US forces from there. But it refused to return the islands after the US forces withdrew. Vietnam and China fought a bloody battle in 1979 over the islands.
In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman coolly blamed Vietnam for harassing “Chinese operations”, perhaps emboldened by the tepid response. Regional bloc ASEAN did not even mention the dispute after a meeting. Secretary of State John Kerry called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 12 May to chide the move as “provocative”; UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon expressed “concern”, and Japan, “strong concern”. Beijing struck a note of triumph on 12 May, with the spokeswoman admonising Vietnam to “accept reality”, observing it would not succeed in “roping in other countries” to put pressure on China.
For the Vietnamese, this isolation felled rage. On 11 May, big protests were held across major cities in a country where public gatherings are discouraged. The government came in for some unaccustomed criticism for its handling of the crisis, which was seen as timid. The Vietnamese at home were joined by expatriates across the world. In Tokyo, Frankfurt and Prague, they marched outraged but orderly; sang patriotic songs, held banners in red that said things such as “China! Hands off Vietnam!” and “China, Stop Lying”, a procession of inventive insult. They filmed these protests and posted them on YouTube. In Paris, hundreds of young Vietnamese in red T-shirts waved red flags, framed against the Eiffel Tower in the bright sunlight. In Washington, D.C., they assembled in a suburb, the elderly sitting in neat rows of chairs like at a community gathering.
Interestingly enough, India has a stake in these events, though it is debatable if it has the matching policy. Indian State-owned oil and gas major ONGC has been drilling in these very waters for more than 25 years, since 1988 — about the time Deng Xiaoping was opening China up to the world. ONGC’s overseas arm OVL has invested as much as $500 million so far. It is producing gas from one block and exploring another, both under contract with the Vietnamese government. And the company was preparing to drill block 128, which is claimed by China. In fact, in 2011-12, China even put it up for a “global public auction”. Late last year, ongc accepted Vietnam’s offer to drill site 128 and was looking to tie up with the Vietnamese State oil company to start drilling. Now, the Chinese will likely control this block.
The politics behind prospecting for oil in these contentious waters have never been hidden from India, which like China, badly needs oil wherever it can find it. Vietnam has explicitly sought India’s engagement to “provide strategic balance” in the region, obviously against China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea. The Indian Navy, a well-regarded force in the region, has close ties with the Vietnamese Navy. It has close relations with most navies of the region but none closer than with Vietnam’s.
In 2012, when China last raised the stakes here, former navy chief Admiral DK Joshi summoned the press in New Delhi to say India stood ready to protect its assets in the South China Sea. But two years on, it is doubtful if India will wade into the dispute. With Admiral Joshi gone, sources in the navy based in the Asia Pacific are already walking back his assertion as misplaced, if well-intentioned. At that time, the Congressled upa government had also demurred on the navy chief’s clear strategic vision. The timing of the Chinese grab is at least partly tactical: it comes while India is in the throes of an election being closely watched in China. It is, perhaps, aimed at presenting a fait accompli to the incoming government.
Nearby, tensions with the Philippines have continued to fester over rival claims to the Spratly islands — the Philippines has put nine Chinese fishermen on trial for illegal entry. China has demanded their release but it is unlikely that things will get out of hand without Chinese aggression. China can count on being left undisturbed to consolidate its position with Vietnam. However, about 5,500 US and Filipino soldiers are conducting a joint exercise in the region, raising the possibility of accidents.
Another tactical reason for China’s latest push could be the speed and alacrity with which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to challenge Chinese military dominance in the region. The Japanese military, so far hamstrung by a strictly pacifist Constitution, will be able to deploy its assets as soon as this autumn. A panel’s report on reinterpreting the Constitution is ready with its report, local media said. The change will allow “collective defence”, enabling Japan to help its allies under attack, effectively checking Chinese power. The Lower House has also passed a change to the referendum law, setting in motion a process to amend the Constitution. Japan is also boosting defence ties with Israel, which has an advanced arms industry.
However, the Chinese are notoriously hard to read: domestic turmoil may be driving President Xi Jinping. A recent visit to a Muslim province by Xi was followed by a blast. The blast was a game-changer in that it showed the separatists’ ability to breach top-level security. It was also a huge loss of face for Xi, who had made a rare show of hunting “terrorist rats”. A ‘blue paper’ on security by a panel Xi heads recently admitted terrorism was a huge problem. The 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is also approaching on 4 June. Numerous arrests have been made. In Xinjiang alone, 232 people were held on terrorism-related charges. A new crash-proof fence has been put around the Square to prevent attacks of the kind when terrorists in a jeep plowed into crowds of tourists. Political intrigues by former president Jiang Zemin are undercutting Xi; publications run by Chinese dissidents in the US claim that Jiang is now cementing his place as the next patriarch after Mao and Deng.
Xi is also methodically moving to try senior leader Zhou Yongkang for corruption. Zhou is bigger than jailed leader Bo Xilai ever was. He retired as a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which may explain Xi’s caution. The media never mentions Zhou’s name. Finally, China’s economy is starting to slow down but more worrisome is that income disparities have reportedly grown to be bigger than in the US.