Country Risk

Chinese, Vietnamese coastguards square off as oil rig dispute escalates

07 May 2014
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel directs a water cannon at a VCG vessel on 5 May in the South China Sea. Source: Vietnam Coast Guard

Vietnam released footage on 7 May showing Chinese Coast Guard vessels ramming and using water cannons against Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) vessels after the latter attempted to intercept a Chinese drilling rig that had moved into disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Rear Admiral Ngo Ngoc Thu, deputy commander of the VCG, showed reporters in Hanoi video footage of Chinese vessels obstructing Vietnamese ships and spraying them with water cannons.

The confrontation occurred after the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration posted on 3 May a navigational warning advising that one of its vessels, the rig CNOOC 981, would be drilling in the South China Sea from 4 May to 15 August in an area close to the Paracel islands. It warned that ships were prohibited from entering a 3-mile radius around the drilling area.

On 4 May the state-owned oil and gas exploration company PetroVietnam protested to China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) after the drilling rig was detected about 120 n miles from the Vietnamese coast.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel collides with a VCG vessel in the South China Sea in early May. (Vietnam Coast Guard)A Chinese Coast Guard vessel collides with a VCG vessel in the South China Sea in early May. (Vietnam Coast Guard)

According to a company statement, released via the Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 5 May, the drilling rig was detected 80 n miles inside Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf boundaries. "This constitutes a violation of Vietnam's sovereign rights and jurisdiction under the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea," the statement added.

The protest note calls for the immediate halt of what the company terms an "illegal operation" and the withdrawal of the rig from what it refers to as "Vietnamese waters". Later statements by Vietnamese officials said the rig's deployment was a clear violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in which all countries with interests or claims agreed to avoid escalatory actions.

Local Vietnamese media reported that Tran Duy Hai, deputy chairman of the Vietnam National Border Committee, said China had deployed 80 ships to accompany the oil rig, including 7 military ships, 33 patrol and surveillance ships, and fishing vessels.

The vessels reportedly included the People's Liberation Army Navy Type 053H1 (Jianghu-II) frigate Jinhua (pennant 534) and a number of large Chinese Coast Guard cutters.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel directs a water cannon at a VCG vessel on 3 May in the South China Sea. (Vietnam Coast Guard)A Chinese Coast Guard vessel directs a water cannon at a VCG vessel on 3 May in the South China Sea. (Vietnam Coast Guard)

The Associated Press news agency reported that Vietnam had dispatched up to 29 armed naval and coastguard ships to waters close to the oil rig.

Adm Thu said that the confrontation began on 3 May at 0810 H local time when a Chinese ship rammed a VCG ship about 10 n miles from the position of the rig. Adm Thu said another collision occurred on the morning of 4 May and that a total of eight Vietnamese ships were rammed, hit, or targeted with water cannons.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the rig was in Chinese territorial waters and so drilling was "normal and legal".

"The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China's sovereign rights," she said in a regular press briefing on 7 May.

On 6 May, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described China's action as "provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region".

The clashes between China and Vietnam coincided with the arrest of a Chinese fishing crew in the Spratly islands by the Philippine National Police Maritime Group Special Boat Unit. In a statement Manila said the crew of 11 Chinese nationals had been illegally poaching protected sea turtles and that it had also arrested a Philippine crew.

The Chinese government said the fishing vessel - named as Qiongqionghai 09063 by Xinhua news agency - had been seized by an "unidentified armed vessel" and called on the Philippines to release the crew and the boat.

COMMENT

The standoff between China and Vietnam is the most serious confrontation involving the two countries since May 2011, when a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship and three Chinese maritime patrol vessels clashed in waters 120 km off the Vietnam's coast and 600 km south of China's Hainan Island.

Vietnamese officials said the Chinese vessels cut the survey ship's cables, something that China denied. In June 2011 a Norwegian-flagged survey ship hired by PetroVietnam clashed with three Chinese fishery patrol vessels within Vietnam's EEZ, again with Vietnam claiming its towed cables were deliberately cut.

The oil rig incident and the arrest of the Chinese crew by Philippine forces are potential triggers to wider confrontation; it is likely that China will seek to further reinforce its claims of sovereignty and force both countries to submit. Given Vietnam's history and the Philippines' security ties with the United States (and the recent agreement to bolster the bilateral alliance) this is unlikely to occur.

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