China’s Oil Rig Diplomacy
By Andrew Reynolds, 15 June 2014
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 signaling 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 signaling to regional and littoral SCS states, as well as to the United States, that it takes its core interests seriously and will not be swayed by the court of popular opinion.
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’ are so fiercely contested is for the surrounding 200nm EEZ granted to the successful owner. This allows the recognised owner exclusive resource extraction rights, a significant factor in the SCS where oil and gas resources are believed to be considerable.