China sent a survey vessel through waters claimed by its maritime sovereignty rival Vietnam this month to warn Hanoi against starting new energy exploration projects and filing any motions in an international court, observers say.
Tracking tools showed China’s 105-meter-long, 58-person survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 4 moving toward Vietnamese waters on June 14, Radio Free Asia reported. The vessel passed three days later within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of Vietnam’s coast – a country’s normal exclusive economic zone – the report said.
That movement follows the passage of another Chinese vessel near Vietnam in April and a standoff at sea last year.
The Chinese government, the most powerful entity in a six-way South China Sea sovereignty dispute that includes Vietnam, hopes its ships discourage Vietnamese leaders from filing for world court arbitration as the Philippines did in 2013, analysts believe.
At the same time, China is warning Vietnam against any new undersea oil or gas exploration projects near a nine-dash line that Beijing uses to demarcate its maritime claims, analysts say.
“What I would see as recent moves, including the most recent one, I think is meant to signal to Vietnam to think twice before resorting to all sorts of these means to undermine Chinese interests, and that includes striking up new deals with other energy partners and all that,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
In November a deputy Vietnamese foreign minister cited arbitration and litigation as two possible measures against China.
Three years after Manila sued, a Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against the legal basis for China’s nine-dash line. China dismissed the ruling but used aid and investment on its own to strengthen relations with rival maritime claimants. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea.
Vietnam and China clashed at sea in 1974, 1988 and 2014, setting Hanoi apart from other sea claimants that seldom spark conflict. The first two incidents were deadly. In 2014 Vietnam charged China with ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat. That incident along with upset over the placement of a Chinese oil rig sparked anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam.
China, backed by the world’s third strongest military, claims about 90% of the South China Sea, prized for fish, energy and shipping lanes.
China cites historical records to support its drilling, surveillance and island construction within the nine-dash line.
Vietnam and China are both looking for fossil fuel reserves under the seabed. China withdrew its vessels in October last year after four months of patrol near a gas-and-oil tract 352 kilometers southeast of Vietnam.
Other oil explorers should take note of China's survey vessel movement, suggested Euan Graham, senior fellow with the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines actively seek undersea fuel, sometimes contracting projects to foreign drillers.
“I think it’s a part of an underlying strategy, which is to intimidate and harass all Southeast Asian exploration activity within the nine-dash line and to a point where it becomes economically unviable for foreign companies and even local companies to exploit, aware that China is going to make life that difficult with them,” Graham said.
China may hope to nudge other claimants toward joint energy exploration, he added.
Drilling contractors expect Vietnam to provide security during any projects, Koh said. They could ask Vietnam for a higher contract fee if they fear harassment, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, director of the Center for International Studies director at University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam had no rigs at an exploration tract along the Chinese boat’s reported mid-June route, Nguyen added. The country hopes to stay low-key for now as the ruling Communist Party prepares for its 2021 national congress, he said. An upset at sea would derail the event agenda.
“Vietnam is making a compromise that it doesn’t want to confront China for the time being,” Nguyen said. “In the next year, the Vietnamese Communist Party congress will be convened, so anything that’s happening in the South China Sea may have a big impact, so that’s the reason why the Vietnamese government wants to put out the tension in the South China Sea.”