China–Vietnam Oil Rig Confrontation: An Opportunity in Crisis

In a bid to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea and gauge international response, China may have overplayed its hand.

On May 2, the oil rig HD-981, owned and operated by the state-owned enterprise China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), protected by about 80 vessels and aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Chinese coast guard, was moved inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (waters disputed by China, claiming much of the South China as its territory).

The oil rig move was uniformly condemned by the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom in separate statements. However, none of this appears to much bother Beijing, which has plans to keep HD-981 in place at least until August. If moving HD-981 into Vietnam’s EEZ was an attempt to gauge Vietnamese and international reaction, China most certainly succeeded.

Discouraging though this event appears, definitive action against China will unlikely be taken by the US, EU, or UK, who have all, for now, expressed their disapproval of the move and reiterated the importance of respecting international law. Contrasted against the crisis in Syria and political developments in Ukraine, CNOOC’s oil rig ranks somewhere at the bottom of the list in terms of urgency.

Not so for Vietnam’s leaders, of course, who must contend with the drillship within its EEZ. It may be that the Communist parties of Vietnam and China share a familial background. However, this has not prevented either country from trading blows in the past. Yet relations between the two countries have never been seriously acrimonious. Cable-cutting, ramming, and turning on water cannons against opposing vessels, although provocative, have until now largely represented the extent to which either side will engage the other.

However, moving HD-981 inside Vietnam’s EEZ, accompanied by warships, airplanes and Chinese coast guard vessels, represents a serious escalation of force and tensions. The move is undoubtedly being seen by Hanoi as an armed incursion and threat to its territorial integrity. Even if the oil rig is only temporary and used to measure Vietnam’s response, Vietnam cannot be expected to be seen as impotent in the matter.

While China may expect Hanoi to rattle its sabres and heighten rhetoric rather than respond with force, China cannot have taken into account any and all unintended consequences as a result of this maneuver.

Challenges and opportunities

The Communist Party of Vietnam may be divided by those who desire closer relations with the West and those who desire relations with China. If so, however, this latest episode might simply have given the former reason to distance itself from its much larger neighbor as well as give the latter group a moment of pause. If nothing else, this oil rig incident may have exacerbated any friction and fractures between personalities and/or factions within the CPV, all to the detriment of future Sino–Vietnamese relations.

Certainly, the current situation in Vietnam remains fluid and somewhat volatile. Thousands of Vietnamese across the country, but especially those at Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks 1 and 2, have begun protesting against China’s oil rig. Vietnamese authorities have yet to shut down these protests, and one must wonder whether they can or should.

Vietnam’s leadership will have its ear to the ground, sensing the anger of its people against China and, if the Communists are not careful, against Hanoi. This is not the first time that Vietnamese authorities have had to manage and control anti-China protests; however, one cannot help but sense this situation is different. The Vietnamese government is already held in low regard by its citizens over corruption and economic mismanagement, and so to quash these protests will be seen as favoring China over its citizens.

The legitimacy and survival of the Communist Paty of Vietnam as the sole authority may hinge on its ability to manage the current dispute and the passions of its citizens. It is therefore somewhat ironic that China may prove to be the catalyst to political reform.

In the days, weeks, and perhaps months ahead, the party will find itself at a crossroads on how best to address the situation. Clearly China has little regard for the fate of Vietnam’s Communist leaders. The US, although concerned by the developments, is unlikely to step in on behalf of a Communist government. Vietnam is very much alone in this matter, despite whatever words of support and sympathy it might receive from the international community.

For any forward-thinker and reformer within Vietnam’s government, China’s oil rig maneuver has provided an opportunity for Hanoi to change course. The CPV has grown long in the tooth with signs of decay. Vietnam deserves a responsible and responsive government.

The form of such a government, and whether the CPV will remain a part of the government, remains to be seen. The thousands of protesters who are now demonstrating have in their crosshairs China, but it will not take much for them to focus their sights on their government, either. Any would-be reformer residing in Hanoi would do well to understand that the CPV is running out of room and time.

China has been able to get away with asserting its territorial ambitions and claims over Vietnam because Vietnam has isolated itself from the international community. Vietnam may be part of the United Nations, but it lacks any real dependable ally, unlike the Philippines. This path, set forth by the CPV, has forced Vietnam to face its challenges alone. Vietnam cannot remain on this path, and it cannot chart a new one under the same flawed leadership and authority. Political reform is the first step, but it is only a first step.

Vietnam would do well to lodge a formal complaint to any Tribunals under Chapter XV of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Art. 287, UNCLOS). Resolving this dispute peacefully and within the boundaries of international law will best serve everyone. However, Vietnam should avoid doing so until China removes the oil rig. China may assert that the waters are theirs, but until this claim is recognized as true, the rig remains within Vietnam’s 200-mile EEZ. Negotiation over the removal of HD-981 is pointless given that the oil rig should not be there in the first place.

If China should fail to remove the oil rig after August and Vietnam has exhausted all diplomatic means to remove it, the question for Hanoi then becomes “what now?” Certainly Hanoi cannot allow China to maintain an oil rig within its EEZ indefinitely. Discussions on self-defense will inevitably be entertained as a measure of last resort. Article 51 under the UN Charter allows for this possibility, but is the presence of an oil rig enough to warrant the use of force?

The oil rig in and of itself may not justify the use of force. However, the incursion and continued presence of warships in Vietnamese waters without Hanoi’s permission may be argued as an act of aggression. Whether Vietnam elects to use force to expel CNOOC is another question entirely – one that must consider the possibility of open conflict between Vietnam and China, and potentially the region at large.

Of course, all of this is a long way off, if it should even occur at all. Regardless of China’s motives with the oil rig, any forward-thinkers within Vietnam’s government should not overlook this opportunity to enact some much needed change to the country. Time has come to past for Vietnam to modernize. Change does not come easy, but when the dust has settled, it will have been well and truly earned.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.