China provoked a furious Vietnamese reaction by sending a deep-water oil-drilling rig into the disputed waters off the Paracel Islands recently. Incensed Vietnamese mobs attacked Chinese factories, killing at least two Chinese workers, injuring over a hundred. China was forced to evacuate over 3,000 of its citizens from Vietnam. China claims the whole of the South China Sea as its own and has disputes with several countries, over its egregious claims of sovereignty over islands in these waters.
China’s decision to position the oil rig was motivated by geopolitics and not just for oil drilling. It was a calculated gambit to test Vietnam, Asean and international reaction. China has deployed more than 130 ships and aircraft to protect the oil rig. Vietnam has claimed that Chinese ships have rammed their ships and used high pressure water hoses. The oil rig remains in place and drilling has commenced. The typhoon season, peaking in August, may force withdrawal of the oil rig.
The 10-member Asean has expressed concern at China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea since 1992. In 2012, China occupied Scarborough Shoal, lying well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the CNOOC invited bids for oil exploration blocks lying within Vietnam’s EEZ. China’s economic clout and plain bribery successfully created a rift within Asean, when Cambodia vetoed any move by Asean to criticise China. This time, however, Asean issued a special statement criticising China.
The United States has accused China of “provocative actions”. India has also expressed concern and stressed the need for maintaining freedom of navigation in these disputed wars. Neither the US nor India has taken sides on the merits of the disputed claims. China blamed Vietnam for obstructing routine exploration activity and criticised it for allowing attacks on Chinese citizens and companies.
Caught by surprise, Vietnam is now making common cause with the Philippines and considering legal action against China at The Hague. China has refused international arbitration and insisted on bilateral negotiations with individual countries. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and the latter can hardly take on the former militarily.
China’s aggressive foray is in stark contrast to the recent signing of an agreement between Indonesia and the Philippines, resolving their maritime border. Vietnam has not provoked China in any way, when the Philippines took its dispute to the International Tribunal last year.
Why did China choose to provoke Vietnam, a country with deep historical animosity towards China? China’s upping the ante and its timing was chosen carefully, after US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia, with the US’ ‘pivot towards Asia’ or ‘rebalancing’ as the backdrop. China chose to test Vietnam. The incident reinforced China’s assumption that the US will remain largely neutral on disputed claims and will remain aloof if Vietnam is bullied.
China’s rise may not be peaceful. Asian countries will hedge and seek security in regional alignments. China, ironically, helps the US’ pivot or rebalancing. For India this opens up new strategic and tactical challenges. Narendra Modi is inclined to engage with China more intensively in the economic domain, hoping that a stake in the Indian economy will deter China from adventurism. Meanwhile, India must build its military assets to bolster both conventional and strategic deterrence and pivot towards Vietnam, Japan, the US and Asean in the Indo-Pacific. A stable security architecture in Asia is a long way away and India must ‘Look East’ more intensely without delay.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is former secretary, ministry of external affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal