Vietnamese agencies have kept a close eye on the path of a giant mobile oil rig since China Central Television announced it was setting off for the Indian Ocean on an “overseas assignment”.
Nguyen Van Hung, captain of Vietnamese Coast Guard Vessel No. 8003, speaks over a walkie-talkie while being flanked by a Chinese Coast Guard ship (L) in Vietnamese waters west of the Paracel Islands, in May of 2014. On May 2 of last year China deployed a giant oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and positioned it over its continental shelf in the East Sea. China withdrew the rig more than two months later. Vietnamese authorities said Monday they are closely watching the path of the rig since it set course for the Indian Ocean on January 1, 2015. Photo credit: Bloomberg
According to local authorities on Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 Rig (the same one that bedeviled Sino-Vietnamese relations last year) set began heading toward Singapore on January 1. The rig has been moving at around four nautical miles per hour in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
The Vietnamese Directorate of Fisheries said the rig has been escorted by a small fleet of vessels. The Vietnamese Maritime Police Force said they have been kept a close tab on the rig to “brace for possible bad developments”.
Carl Thayer, a maritime expert, cited anonymous sources as having told him the rig is being taken to Myanmar to engage in oil exploration activities. It may have passed through Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but this is totally legal under international law, he said.
“All countries have the right to transit through the EEZ of coastal states. It is perfectly legal for China to tow the rig through Vietnam’s EEZ in order to go to Myanmar,” Thayer told Thanh Nien News.
“If China entered Vietnam’s EEZ and parked the [rig] to begin commercial operations that would be another matter, a violation of Vietnam’s sovereign jurisdiction,” he said.
On May 2 of last year China's deployment of the the rig into Vietnamese waters triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels from both countries at sea.
China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties by exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.
Tensions appeared to flare up again last month.
In a position paper published on December 7, China outlined its arguments against the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to take up the territorial case filed by the Philippines, Reuters reported.
On December 11, Vietnam condemned the Chinese position paper and reasserted its claim to incontestable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) island chains--where many South East Asian countries also hold claims.
Vietnam also said then that it had filed its own position paper asking that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague take its legal interests and rights into consideration when weighing the evidence in Philippines' case against China in the East Sea.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dash line -- a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international experts. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
After withdrawing the oil rig last July, China has continued to pursue a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly island chain in the East Sea. In August, Beijing announced plans to build lighthouses on five islets, two of them the in Paracels, also in the East Sea.
“The reality is China has neither made a single concession nor has it backed down from its claim to the East Sea,” said Zachary Abuza, an analyst based in the US.
“It has refused to stop all the things that reinforce its sovereign claims. Indeed, it has sped up their development,” Abuza said