China's Vessels Ram Vietnamese Craft In South China Sea

May 7 2014, 8:15pm CDT | by

On Wednesday, Vietnamese officials announced that one of China’s ships intentionally rammed two of their Sea Guard vessels.  The incidents took place on Sunday, the 4th.  Six were injured, according to Hanoi.

Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels,” said Tran Duy Hai of the Foreign Ministry at a news conferenceOther officials said six other Vietnamese craft were hit.

The incidents occurred after China National Offshore Oil Corp., better known as CNOOC, had on May 2 towed a deep-water rig, the size of several football fields, to an area that Hanoi claims is within its exclusive economic zone, near the Paracel Islands.  Beijing, with its infamous nine-dashed line on its maps, claims about 90% of the international waters of the South China Sea as an internal Chinese lake.  The expansive—and largely indefensible—claim overlaps the coastal waters of Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia as well as Vietnam.  

Beijing brought a fleet of about 80 vessels to keep the Vietnamese from stopping the oil rig, designated HD-981.  CNOOC called HD-981 a “strategic weapon” at its launch in 2012. 

And it is clear that the company was using the rig at Beijing’s behest.  “This reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the U.S. strategy on Asia,” said a Chinese oil official, speaking anonymously to Reuters, about drilling in Vietnam’s waters.  “It is not commercially driven.  It is also not like CNOOC has set a big exploration blueprint for the region.”

It did not take long for Chinese leaders to test President Obama’s general commitment to maintain regional security after his eight-day, four-nation “reassurance” visit there at the end of last month.  With this expedition against Vietnam, Beijing crossed two important lines.  This is the first time China has drilled in Vietnamese waters.  Moreover, this is the first time Beijing openly used its “gray hulls”—navy ships—in close support of “white hulls”—civilian maritime craft—while enforcing a territorial claim, according to the Nelson Report, the Washington insider newsletter.  There are seven Chinese naval ships in the vicinity of the rig.

Beijing could be trying to take advantage of a distracted Washington’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, showing its disrespect for Obama, or just lashing out against another small nation.  Yet whatever China is doing, it is extraordinarily dangerous. 

The Vietnamese do not have a history of backing down, even in the face of provocative behavior from big neighbor China.  The two countries have tangled with each other over the course of decades.  Sometimes the Chinese win and sometimes the Vietnamese prevail, but it’s clear Hanoi is not afraid of its neighbor.  It is unlikely proud Vietnam will let Beijing drill in waters close to its shore unimpeded this time. 

The Chinese want the territory and waters of surrounding countries.  They will not stop until they are stopped.  And it may just be the Vietnamese who stop them. 

After all, in their last major encounter—in 1979—Hanoi humiliated the Chinese army. 

Follow me on Twitter @GordonGChang and on Forbes


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