While territorial tensions are common in the South China Sea, China has never in recent years explicitly threatened to attack Vietnam for its energy prospecting activities in the disputed maritime area.
According to a July 24 BBC report, China threatened to use armed force if Vietnam did not stop its exploration of block 136-03, where Spanish oil company Repsol was jointly exploring for oil with a Vietnamese state-owned energy firm. Hanoi has since asked Repsol to leave the area.
Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy and a renowned Vietnam expert, has since said he has been told several times that actual threats were an overstatement, though China had asked Vietnam to stop drilling and it complied.
The kerfuffle was not raised in the state-controlled Vietnamese press, as there as a likely gag order on reporting on the BBC story. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not responded to requests for clarification on the alleged threat. Interestingly, though, there was no immediate denial from China.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did say that it urged “the relevant party to cease the relevant unilateral infringing activities and with practical actions safeguard the hard-earned positive situation in the South China Sea.”
What that “hard-earned positive” situation is as open to interpretation as China’s nine-dash-line expansive map which claims most of the South China Sea as its territory and cuts deeply into Vietnam’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where the 136-03 block in question sits off the country’s southern coast.
Though actual force was apparently not threatened, Repsol’s decision to vacate the contested area reverses the strides Vietnam has made in its oil and gas exploration in recent years.
China had previously intimidated all other multinational and state-run oil and gas companies, (save the US’s Exxon-Mobil, until recently run by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), out of the disputed maritime area.
What was notable then, however, was that China used a carrot and stick approach directly towards the companies, not Vietnam, by suggesting their interests in and with China might be hit if they continued to explore with Vietnam.
China has been displeased with both Vietnam’s deal with Exxon-Mobil to develop the $10 billion Blue Whale (Ca Voi Xanh) project off central Quang Ninh province, where an estimated 150 billion cubic meter of natural gas lies, as well as with Hanoi’s recent two-year extension for exploration granted to Indian state oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd.
Though India’s chief of navy V.K Joshi suggested to Indian media in December 2012 that his forces would defend its Vietnam-given energy exploration interests in the South China Sea – a view that was not obviously shared at the time in Indian foreign policy and military circles.
India values keeping China occupied in the South China Sea to slow its expansion into the Indian Ocean and to maintain a rules-based global maritime order. But it hardly wants to open another front with China, particularly at sea, as the more strategically crucial Sikkim border dispute escalates.
The Repsol incident has raised questions if Exxon-Mobil will be next. The US company’s interests in Vietnam would likely require American war ships to protect from a Chinese threat, a scenario that would send ripples of instability through the region despite Vietnam’s positive view of US’ commitment to freedom of navigation patrols in the area.
Tillerson, the US oil giant’s former chief executive, said during his Senate confirmation hearing last year that the US would send Beijing a “clear signal” over its island-building in the South China Sea, which strategic analysts warn could eventually shift the region’s balance of power in China’s favor.
The Donald Trump administration has not yet followed up those firm words with actions. Last weekend two Chinese fighter jets reportedly intercepted a US Navy surveillance plane over the East China Sea, with one of the jets coming within about 300 feet of the American aircraft, US officials said on Monday, according to Reuters.
While Vietnam and China’s relationship is as complicated as ever, both sides have aimed to keep ties on a cordial track, seen in a constant stream of bilateral meetings and agreements. Hanoi works especially hard to state its positions clearly when incidents crop up, often publicly agreeing to disagree to diffuse delicate situations.
For its part, China has spent three years repairing charred and smoking bridges with Vietnam after the HYSY-981 oil rig incident of May 2014, when the giant exploration vessel moved into waters visible from Vietnam’s shores, a move seen then as a flagrant betrayal of friendship and ties.
Nationalistic protests in Vietnam targeted Chinese commercial interests in the country, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of Chinese nationals.
China and Vietnam have a cooperative comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest echelon of ties, one cooperative notch above Hanoi’s relations with Russia and India. China is also Vietnam’s largest trade partner, a major investor (though still lagging South Korea) and an increasingly important tourism market.
In April and May this year, relations were seemingly on an upswing with various high-level meetings, including on the sidelines of the Belt and Road initiative summit in Beijing.
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang also met Chinese leaders Le Keqiang and Xi Jinping, an occasion where Xi spoke highly of the bilateral relationship by referring to the nominally communist nations as “comrades.”
China also agreed to address the two sides’ trade imbalance, where Beijing enjoys a massive and growing surplus in two-way trade estimated last year at US$100 billion last year. In January this year, China notched a US$ surplus of around US$2 billion.
A joint statement signed by Quang and Xi also agreed to better manage their maritime disputes by not taking “any actions to complicate the situation or expand the dispute and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Still tensions have remained, witnessed in General Fan Changlong’s, Vice Chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, early departure from a meeting Hanoi earlier this month. His truncated trip came two days after China deployed a rocket defense system on a Fiery Cross Reef island, part of the Spratly island chain that both sides claim.
Vietnam is apparently keen to keep the latest row out of the media to avoid a repeat of the anti-China protests that turned violent in mid-2014.
While Hanoi has previously allowed small groups of usually orderly activists to march to the Chinese embassy to show their polite displeasure over perceived slights, the 2014 attacks spun dangerously out of control resulting in deaths and destruction.
The timing of China’s apparent threat is delicate for Vietnam. Should China’s belligerence increase, there will likely be more spontaneous protests at a time the regime is already cracking down hard on dissent.
Bloggers critical of both the government and China have recently been handed harsh prison sentences or forced into exile. It is thus not a good time for Hanoi to allow anti-China protests that could morph into something larger.
Vietnam is a formidable opponent who kicked out USA. Japan cannot do that. South Korea is still occupied. China fully respects comrade Vietnam.
Friendly co-operation in extraction of oil and gas is on the cards as per the arrangement with Philippines.
It would be the best if the claiming countries will start to extract and share
the resources among themselves rather than arguing on rights. I’m wondering why they not did this already, as China and Ph intend to do.
This will keep the countries busy and peacefully. US will not like it, but doesn’t matter
The commies in Hanoi owe a debt of gratitude toward China for material help during the war for without chinese help, it was not possible for Hanoi to win the war, so the attitude of Hanoi is generally soft toward China. Vietnamese generally regard the commies in Hanoi as traitors who will do everything to safeguard the commie party at all cost even at the expense of losing sovereignty over the SCS islands and territorial waters. They are currently worried about the survival of the party in the long term as more and more people are disenchanted by the way they run the economy. Their ideology is at its last leg, hopefully Vietnam will be free of communism.
China is very sensitive about its image. Xi Jinping is careless about asserting that the SCS belongs to China since ancient times, the more he maintains that fantacy, the more difficult it will be for him to climb down without China losing face. That’s the pill China will have to take as it will be forced to retreat as more countries will join forces to make sure China doesn’t own the SCS. Vietnam has the capability to blow those hundreds of chinese boats out of the water if it wants to but it must be careful not to make China to lose face since China is a major trade partner.
So a tactical standdown is preferable for the time being whilst it is weighing the options. Vietnam has stated that the typhoon season is coming and the drilling ship has nearly finished the job and is waiting for better weather.
During many thousand years of history, whenever China was prospersous and strong then Vietnam was bullied, invaded, or even illegally, brutally occupied. China, therefore, is all the time a dangerous threat to Vietnam. Vietnamese understand the history and will never forget the China’s threat, and they are all the time ready to sacrify everything to valiantly fight back for their independence.
During the war, in the North, the commies had complete monopoly of the media and used it to disseminate false informations, to pass off the war effort as a struggle for independence, to liberate the South from oppressive foreign occupiers, that southerners lived in abject poverty, etc…. North Vietnamese population was deceived into taking part enthusiastically in the fraticidal war. After conquering the South, North Vietnamese troops did not believe their eyes in seeing a prosperous South Vietnam and realized they’ve been deceived by commies propaganda.
Commie ideology being a dead duck, the Hanoi regime takes its cues from the PRC and looks to China for support to ensure the survival of the regime. The commie regime has past its sell by date and must be abolished as soon as possible for the sake of the nation of Vietnam. The Hanoi regime is responsible for facilitating China’s penetration into Vietnam as a price to pay for past chinese help and China hopes to win Vietnam without needing a shot. The commies in Hanoi serve as lackeys of China. Needless to say that every aspects of Vietnamese administration, be it military, security services, education, etc.. is heavily penetrated by chinese agents.
It can be said that China can cause Vietnam’s power grid to collapse if it wants. It will be a big task to ferret out and eliminate those chinese sleeping agents. Vietnamese people should rise up and kick out the commies for national salvation.
Who was helping Vietnam in the war of independence against the French and Americans? If need reminding, it’s your comrades across the border. Isn’t it?
Zheng He Only naive person believes in the China’s help in such a case. China has never sincerely helped Vietnam; ìt only just wanted to use Vietnam as a tool to achieve its geopolitical goals. We Vietnamese understand very clearly what Chinese really want.
The Vietnamese are smart to bring in foreign Powers interference because they are prepared to give foreign concession over the whole East Vietnam Sea.
There is no sucth thing is sharing. It is the same thing it is your house , let share your back yard and your house for everyone. Does it sound liogical ?? . Btw VN communist party members were trained as Chinese Servants and it is unacceptable for the servants to disobey their master. Hence they are willing to listen to their master for a return of lump sums for their retirement ccffin at the expense of the VN people.
Daniel Maraamu : what ! Are you some kind of peacenik?
Zheng He you chinos didn’t help Vietnam with anything, Mao was willing to fight the American until the last Vietnamese. You chinitos are greedy and evil.
It’s time for Vietnam to start acquiring nuclear weapons, I say about 500 devices would be sufficient.
Tranvan Thomas and replace with who ? Former coward VNCH ? You’ve got to be kidding me.
Thomas, I beg the differ. During the war, Vietnam had both the USSR and China as material supplies. Vietnam can get them from either countries. The positive incentives to get from both of them is to show the world that Vietnam had more support in its causes.
In addition, the most positive incentive is to play off both of them. In other words, Vietnam would not to abide to strict terms & conditions from either country. That was a very smart move by Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam at the time.
"During the war, Vietnam had both the USSR and China as material supplies. Vietnam can get them from either countries. The positive incentives to get from both of them is to show the world that Vietnam had more support in its causes. In addition, the most positive incentive is to play off both of them. In other words, Vietnam would not to abide to strict terms & conditions from either country. That was a very smart move by Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam at the time." — Fröit Mi
China’s ulterior motive for helping the Vietnamese is to rid of the American from boxing her just like the South Korea situation. China was only helping herself. I don’t know if you are either naive or plain dumb. Sorry for my English, no other word to put it.
China has a history of expansionism. It cannot expand north nor west, hemmed in by Russia and former states of the Soviet Union. In the East, it faces a strong Japan and the US fleet. It’s obvious that China wants to expand South because it faces much weaker opponents. Throughout history Vietnam stands out like a bone that got stuck in China’s throat and it cannot swallow. The compliant commie regime in Hanoi provides China its best opportunity to expand to conquer the world.
For Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was the worst thing that could ever happen. He introduced the commie ideology that impoverishes the country and hinders its development. There is a mystery about the real person Ho is, the real Ho died in 1935 from illness and was replaced by a chinese impersonator who was trained by chinese intelligence to act like Ho and help China penetrate every aspects of Vietnamese society. During the skirmish in the South China Sea when China brought the Haiyang 961 drilling rig to Vietnamese territorial waters, China’s Global Times revealed that Ho Chi Minh was in fact a chinese colonel in the PLA.
There are calls for DNA samples be taken from the mummified corpse in the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum for examination to ascertain the real identity of the body. If it can be shown that the body is chinese, then the body should be incinerated and the mausoleum demolished. The commie ideology is bankrupt, just look at Cuba and Venezuela. Vietnam is better off burying that defunct ideology and start a fresh new page. The Hanoi regime must end its balancing act, trying to play both China and the US to its advantage. With Trump, it will not work. Vietnam needs strong allies in the West to face an expansionist China.
It has been proven by the Vietnam experience that any claimant country don’t stand a chance against the mighty China. I propose that all claimant countries set aside for a while all their ownership claim and agree to jointly drill for oil in the disputed seas with equal sharing for all. We cannot expect a fair deal with a bully like China.
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