VietNamNet Bridge – In June 2012, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) illegally invited bids for nine oil blocks off the coast of central Vietnam. China’s aims and strategies have not changed then as it wants to control the East Sea and then share the Pacific Ocean with the US.
Chinese fishing vessels surround an illegal oil rig. Photo: Vietnam Coast Guard
Some experts have said that China’s deployment of the HD-981 oil rig in Vietnam’s waters is a response to US President Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries from April 21-29 and an action to satisfy its thirst for energy.
In fact, the ability to deploy an oil rig had been anticipated since 1992 when China signed an illegal cooperation agreement with Crestone (USA) on the waters covering 125,000 km2.
This is the area of Tu Chinh (Vanguard) Bank in the continental shelf of Vietnam which China claimed as its Wanan Tan. This capability became clear when the HD-981 oil rig was completed in 2011 and conducted the first drilling in May 2012.
The East Sea with its strategic location - connecting two oceans, with abundant oil and gas resources, natural hydrate and aquatic resources – has become the “hot spot” in the game between the two superpowers, China and America.
The number of international oil tankers passing through the East Sea accounts for more than half of the world, three times more than the number of ships passing the Suez Canal, and five times more than the Panama Canal.
China is the world’s second-largest market for oil and gas, and oil is mainly transported across the Pacific through the critical shipping lanes in the East Sea so China cannot let the U.S. and its allies control its energy security.
China’s maritime security strategy will only succeed if it has the East Sea as its backyard (core benefits) to avoid direct competition with the U.S. and its allies - Japan and South Korea - in the East China Sea.
This strategy is contrary to China’s "peaceful rise" statement.
To soften that contradiction, China has put out a policy combining the irrational “nine-dash line” and the doctrine of “sovereignty belongs to China, setting aside disputes and pursuing joint development".
The maritime activities of China in recent years are part of a strategy of avoiding confrontation with America, but taking tough actions against selective neighbors, which are provocative enough to achieve China’s short-term goals but still not cross the red line of war.
Maintaining the U-shaped or nine-dash line as the basis for “setting aside disputes and pursuing joint development" is one aim. China’s most modern facilities are tested in the East Sea, from the Liaoning carrier to the HD-981 oil rig and nuclear-energy fueled submarines.
The next targets after the HD-981 oil rig may be the Vanguard Bank, the nine oil blocks along the central coast of Vietnam that the CNOOC offered invitations for illegal bids, Bai Co Rong (Reed Bank), Bai Co May (Second Thomas Shoal), Tang Mau (James Shoal) or anyplace within the U-shaped line. But the priority will be given to coastal areas of other countries where the commercial exploitation of oil and gas has been confirmed.
The deployment of the oil rig immediately after US President Obama's trip to Asia is said to be China's harsh reaction to the US, but preparation to deploy the oil rig and escort vessels could not take place in several days.
The US’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea has reinforced China's determination. The Asian visit by President Obama was only the catalyst. The deployment had been decided and is part of the long-term roadmap for acquiring the East Sea.
This was a geopolitical decision and not merely an economic decision when China set the $1 billion oil rig in the waters where the economic potential is unclear.
Anchoring the oil rig is also done to intimidate countries in the region to not follow the Philippines’ decision to bring disputes to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Unfortunately for China, the Philippines’ profile was submitted on time (30/3/2014) and was accepted by the tribunal.
HD-981 is a conflict between Vietnam and China but actually it a step in the struggle between China and the US to find allies and satellites in and then control the East Sea.