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China_&_Japan_in_Diaoyu_Island_(2012-9-24)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 15 June 2014

China’s current oil rig crisis with Vietnam is not in essence a sovereignty dispute – it is all about China asserting power


China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC’s) May 2 towing of oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 into the South China Sea (SCS), 120 nautical miles off the Vietnam coast and ostensibly within Vietnam’s 200nm continental shelf Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), was a clear maritime display of power on China’s part. By towing this rig into place in what it knows are contested waters, China was clearly signalling its intentions to regional and wider audiences.

For those who still cling to the notion that China is a rising power, think again. As noted here recently, China has already risen and is starting to flex its considerable muscle. It may not hold the strongest hand at the table, but knows how to call a bluff, and this is precisely what we are witnessing playing out here. Through this provocative move, China is clearly signalling to regional and littoral states, as well as to the United States, that it takes its core interests seriously and will not be swayed from its intention to enforce its sovereignty over waters and islands it regards as rightfully its own.

Legally, in making its unilateral claims to 90% of the SCS and in this present dispute with Vietnam, China is on shaky ground. The main reason sovereignty over the SCS ‘islands’ is so fiercely contested is for the surrounding 200nm EEZ ownership provides. This allows the sovereign owner exclusive resource extraction rights, a significant factor in the SCS where oil and gas resources are believed to be considerable. However, in order to qualify for such status, landform features must meet the minimum requirements of ‘islands’ under international law.

Under Article 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) a key requirement for an island to qualify for continental shelf claims is for it to be “capable of sustaining human habitation and an independent economic life of its own”.  It is precisely this requirement which has led a number of regional littoral states to build a succession of rickety military structures on SCS ‘islands’ they claim in support of their case.  As has been noted, the ability of China to successfully argue their case for sovereignty on the basis of this claim amongst many is dubious at best. A more likely outcome is for successful sovereignty claimants to be granted a 12nm territorial claim, rather than the full 200nm that China claims.

However China, by refusing to accept UNCLOS’s dispute settlement procedures for maritime delimitation in the SCS, is prolonging a series of disputes, which could otherwise have been settled under international law already. And moreover, by refusing to admit there is a territorial dispute in the SCS, China is managing to further antagonize its regional neighbours who grow increasingly weary of China’s bullying tactics.

However at its heart, this spat with Vietnam is not about territorial disputes. China knows Vietnam will ultimately be measured in the extent of its reactions against their aggressive maritime tactics. With China now Vietnam’s most important source of imports (28% of GDP) as well as a valuable export partner1,the economic partnership with China is too important for Vietnam’s continued growth for them to put at risk through a military retaliation against China. Moreover, unlike Japan or the Philippines, Vietnam does not have treaty arrangements with the United States and hence is not covered under an American security umbrella.

China is using this event to send out clear signals to its Asian neighbours and to the United States. By acting unilaterally in such contested waters, China is letting its neighbours know it will brook no interference in what it clearly sees as its sovereign waters, leading scholars such as Amitav Acharya and Hugh White2 to observe China is pursuing its own form of America’s Monroe Doctrine to protect its eastern approaches within the first island chain. Furthermore, by gambling that the United States will not intervene despite the contested nature of its actions, it is declaring its colours as a power that has arrived.

Finally it bears consideration that China is not a democracy. The Central Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a body not accustomed to considering opinions divergent from their own. What appears as aggressively authoritarian action to western eyes is business as usual to those in power in Beijing, thus reflecting divergent approaches to governance and the usual mutual ethnocentrism which characterizes such clashes between east and west. Of this we can expect to see more, as it is clear China has no intention of backing off any time soon. We can expect to see more oil rig or coast guard diplomacy in the East and South China Seas.

End Notes

  1. Kaplan, Robert D., Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014).
  2. White, Hugh, The China Choice : Why America Should Share Power (Collingwood, Vic.: Black Inc., 2012).
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