China has moved an oil rig that was at the heart of a dispute with Vietnam last year to waters near Vietnam again, according to multiple news report.
Yesterday, Vietnamese newspapers began reporting, citing the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), that China’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) oil rig was being moved to waters where China and Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) overlap. According to the news reports, the platform is now located 17°03'75’' North latitude and 109°59’05’’ East longitude.
In the statement, MSA warned that all ships must stay 2,000 meters away from the rig. The HD-981 will explore for oil and gas in the region between now and August 20, according to the MSA statement.
Last year, the HD-981 was sent deep inside Vietnam’s EEZ, which plunged Chinese-Vietnamese relations to their lowest level in years. Vietnamese ships tried to challenge the oil rig’s deployment, and China sent upwards of 100 vessels to protect the HD-981. Ultimately, after a bitter falling out, Beijing removed the oil rig ahead of schedule.
The oil rig’s current location is not as close to Vietnam as it was last year, which might temper Vietnam’s response to the new provocation. In addition, China is likely to claim the oil rig is within Hainan Island’s EEZ, rather than one of the Paracel Islands, which both Hanoi and Beijing claim.
Still, the new deployment comes amid increasing concerns over Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea. In recent months, China has undertaken a massive reclamation project on reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, which it is transforming into civilian and military bases. These new islands will enhance China’s ability to project power in the region. China has also been increasing the frequency and sophistication of its military exercises in the region.
Before this latest development, there had been signs that China was engaging in a charm offensive in an attempt to reduce tensions ahead of important bilateral and multilateral meetings, including the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which took place in Washington earlier this week. For example, China’s Foreign Ministry recently announced that its land reclamations were being wrapped up, although this was partly because the most important ones had already been completed.
As Reuters notes, the oil rig’s deployment comes just weeks before the chief of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, is set to visit the United States for the first time. Washington and Hanoi have grown closer in recent years as China’s growing power and aggression in the South China Sea have given the two countries’ common cause.
This new development will only further strengthen Vietnam’s desire to strengthen ties with the United States as a way to balance its more powerful neighbor.
Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.