China's oil rig withdrawal from Vietnam waters: retreat or tactical feint?

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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An officer on the Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel No. 8003 looks on as it is flanked by a Chinese Coast Guard ship, right, in Vietnamese waters west of the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, on  May 14, 2014. Photo credit: Bloomberg An officer on the Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel No. 8003 looks on as it is flanked by a Chinese Coast Guard ship, right, in Vietnamese waters west of the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, on May 14, 2014. Photo credit: Bloomberg

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The recent withdrawal of a giant Chinese oil rig from Vietnamese waters was welcomed with anxiety in Hanoi as many analysts have interpreted the departure as little more than tactical feint in a territorial battle that is sure to drag on.
On July 15, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation announced that the US$1-billion oil rig had finished drilling near the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, which the country seized by force in 1974.
The rig will be relocated closer to Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, after having successfully discovered “signs of oil and gas,” the Chinese company said in a statement last week.
The rig set of a kind of geopolitical storm when it arrived in Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, on May 2.
In the ensuing days, China built up an aggressive fleet around the rig to chase off Vietnamese police boats, triggering peaceful protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam two weeks later. The resulting riots left hundreds of foreign-owned factories vandalized and three Chinese nationals dead.
The rig was originally scheduled to explore the waters around the Paracels until mid-August and independent analysts have tried to account for why China withdrew it ahead of schedule; China’s Xinhua news agency noted that July was the beginning of the typhoon season.
Analysts say the move may have been prompted by the simple completion of its mission objective: to find enough hydrocarbons to justify coming back at a later time. The early arrival of two major typhoons allowed China the perfect face-saving opportunity to exit.
Others argue that Beijing hopes to defuse tensions and repair their bilateral relationship with Vietnam, noting how much China stands to gain from the current uncertainty.
“The prospects of discussions will constrain Vietnam from taking legal action against China, and it will also constrain Vietnam from seeking to align with the US and Japan,” Carl Thayer, a maritime expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Thanh Nien News.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said his government will consider taking legal action against China to resolve the dispute. In March, the Philippines submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, challenging China's claims in the East Sea.
On July 10, the divided and partisan US Senate unanimously passed a resolution which, among other things, urged China to withdraw its oil rig from Vietnamese waters--a move welcomed by both Vietnam and the Philippines.
China has bristled at the US's strategic “pivot” towards the region, blaming it for aggravating an already tense situation. Japan, America’s treaty ally which remains embroiled in its own dispute with China over ownership of islands in the East China Sea, recently ramped up economic and strategic engagement with Hanoi.
By removing the oil rig ahead of schedule, China may have proven that it can act with impunity--sowing seeds of doubt in the region about America's reliability as an ally, analysts say.
“China was also posing two questions to Vietnam: even as you move closer to the US, do you really think that Washington is going to help you defend your claims? Surely it is better to negotiate a solution directly with us?” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Brewing tensions
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line--a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) --namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
In late June, Beijing unveiled a new official map that portrayed these contested islets, shoals and waters as integral parts of China’s territorial limits. In recent weeks, China dispatched three more oil rigs across the East Sea, while ramping up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly Islands (also part of the East Sea), where it plans to build airstrips and other long-term facilities.
The removal of the oil rig from Vietnamese waters occurred a day after US President Barack Obama called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to talk about what the White House called the “important progress” at recent meetings between the two countries in Beijing. 
The telephone call took place less than a week after the Senate passed its resolution, which has been disdained by several analysts as a toothless but destabilizing wrench thrown into an already tense situation.
China was also posing two questions to Vietnam: even as you move closer to the US, do you really think that Washington is going to help you defend your claims? Surely it is better to negotiate a solution directly with us?” -- Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore
Analysts say that given the Chinese policymaking process, it would be surprising that a single event (either the presidential telephone call or the Senate resolution) could change China’s policy course.
“It may have been an influence, but a small one,” said Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Asia analyst. “I think the Chinese know that it is a resolution only from a Congress that tends to be very anti-Chinese in general. They assume that the Obama administration has no stomach for escalating the conflict with Beijing,” he said.
Although the crisis appears over for the moment and PM Nguyen Tan Dung has demanded that China not send any more rigs into Vietnamese waters, most expect the oil rigs will be back, either later this year or next year, prompting another round of tensions between Hanoi and Beijing.
“In the meantime, Vietnam’s leaders will have to re-examine their policy towards their giant northern neighbor and how best to deal with a stronger, more confident and more assertive China,” Storey said.

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