China's Self-Made Disaster in the South China Sea

Beijing keeps pushing. Its neighbors are starting to push back. 

Shortly after Obama’s latest trip to East Asia (on April 23-29), where he sought to deepen Washington’s strategic footprint in the region and reiterate his administration’s commitment to remain as an anchor of stability in the Indo-Pacific theater, Beijing upped the ante by dispatching HYSY981—China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) state-of-the-art oil rig—deep into Vietnam’s 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Outraged by China’s provocative action, Hanoi dispatched about thirty vessels to the area, which faced off with an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels escorting the $ 1 billion deep-water oil-drilling rig.

It didn’t take long before there were reports of low-intensity clashes in the high seas, with Hanoi subsequently taking the unprecedented decision to release—despite vigorous Chinese pressure—a video, which shows Chinese vessels using coercive measures against Vietnamese maritime forces. Meanwhile, anti-China protests in Vietnam snowballed into a wholesale destruction of factories owned by, among other nationalities, Chinese and Taiwanese investors—precipitating the exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens to neighboring Cambodia. At this juncture, Vietnamese-Chinese relations entered their lowest point in decades, undermining years of painstakingly established bilateral mechanisms to peacefully resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. No wonder Beijing’s recent decision to aggressively take on Hanoi has prompted some experts to announce the birth of a new era of Chinese territorial assertiveness.

Confronting an increasingly uncompromising China, Southeast Asian claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam have inched closer to a genuine strategic partnership. Alarmed by the consequences of China’s actions on regional stability and the freedom of navigation in international waters, nonclaimant actors have also stepped up their efforts. Even the perennially polite Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) couldn’t hide its panic, with regional leaders expressing “serious concern” over the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Japan—along other Pacific powers such as Australia, India, and South Korea—have sought a deeper role in stabilizing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), given the significance of the South China Sea to the energy security and trade interests of all major regional players. In short, China’s territorial assertiveness has further internationalized the very territorial disputes, which Beijing adamantly frames as purely bilateral concerns.

China’s Motivations

Officially, China maintains that commercial considerations underscored CNOOC’s decision to dispatch HYSY981 to a contested territory, which falls 17 nautical miles south of Chinese-controlled Triton Island in the Paracels. China argues that the latest maneuver was simply a logical extension of previously conducted exploratory surveys in the (supposedly) hydrocarbon-rich area. Based on a conventional interpretation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vietnam has sovereign rights over the hydrocarbon riches currently under exploration by the HYSY981. Thus, China has violated Vietnam’s EEZ privileges.

According to China’s distinct interpretation of the UNCLOS, however, Beijing can legitimately claim the area, because it falls within the 200-nautical-miles EEZ of the Triton Island, which is currently under the control of China. Through this form of legal interpretation, Beijing has sought to indirectly justify its notorious “nine-dash-line” doctrine, which serves as the foundational document that supposedly accords China “inherent” and “indisputable” sovereignty over almost the entirety of the South China Sea.