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China’s Oil Rig Move: Is Another Energy War Looming?

Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy

China’s dispatch of an oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam threatens armed conflict, and makes Washington a party whether it likes it or not.

China and Vietnam enter the second week of their tense naval standoff in the South China Sea, three questions loom large: What is China trying to achieve, could this turn into a shooting war between the two historical enemies, and what does this all mean for the U.S. pivot to Asia?

The short answers: China watchers are puzzled by Beijing’s aggressive behavior, which seems both a departure from its previous approach to regional relations and potentially counterproductive; no guns have yet been drawn, but this could quickly turn violent; and U.S. desire to maintain influence in the region could hinge on how it handles a dispute between two communist countries — and on whether neighboring nations believe Washington is willing to go to the mat to stand up to a rising China.

China’s dispatch of a huge, billion-dollar offshore oil rig to waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi sparked the biggest conflict in years between the two countries. Over the weekend, Vietnamese officials said, Chinese ships sent to escort the oil rig rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese coast guard vessels sent to investigate. Tensions remain at a fever pitch, with Chinese officials claiming Friday, May 9, that Vietnamese ships and frogmen are interfering with the oil rig’s operations, though no further naval clashes have been confirmed.

The clash, the most serious since a similar showdown between China and Vietnam in 2007, has zoomed to the top of the agenda for the summit this weekend of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which in turn has infuriated Beijing. China doesn’t want any international groupings to discuss the maritime disputes, which it prefers to settle on a bilateral basis.

The Philippines, which has its own fresh dispute with China this week after Philippine Coast Guard officials arrested someone they said was an illegal Chinese fisherman, will seek to put maritime disputes at the heart of the ASEAN confab and seek progress on a code of conduct that could give countries a peaceful way to resolve territorial disputes. In response, Chinese state-controlled media attacked the Philippines for trying to “instigate tension” in the region by promising to bring up maritime disputes at the annual ASEAN summit.

The real bad guy, in Chinese eyes, isn’t the Philippines or Vietnam, however. Instead, Beijing says that the United States, by pursuing its pivot to Asia, has emboldened countries in the region to take an unnecessarily tougher and more provocative stance toward China than they had in recent years.

“It must be pointed out that the recent series of irresponsible and wrong comments from the United States, which neglect the facts about the relevant waters, have encouraged certain countries’ dangerous and provocative behavior,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at a regular briefing Friday, Reuters reported.

China was responding to tough talk from the U.S. State Department in the wake of news that the two countries had actually clashed over the oil rig’s deployment. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that China’s aggressive approach to advancing its claims over a broad stretch of the South China Sea “undermines peace and stability in the region.”

On Thursday, after Chinese officials alleged that Vietnamese ships had attacked their vessels more than 170 times, Psaki reiterated that the United States sees China as the bad actor in this particular drama. “We think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here,” she said.

She repeated the U.S. position at a briefing on Friday, saying that though the United States takes no position on the sovereignty dispute “any time there are provocative or unhelpful actions taken that put the maintenance of peace and stability at risk, I think that’s something that any country has the right to have concerns about.”

For a nation that spent 30 years reassuring neighbors that it sought a “peaceful rise” in both economic and military power, China’s bold move to dispatch an oil rig to waters inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, and then defend it with about 80 coast guard and naval vessels, raises serious questions. Here’s a good one with which to start: Just what is China thinking?

“Something fundamental is taking place in China’s foreign-policy behavior,” said David Lai, a China expert at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. “The Chinese are changing from a ‘low profile, avoid showdowns’ approach to one that is more proactive.”

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