Tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea waters off Vietnam’s coast rose higher when a Chinese vessel intentionally rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Vietnamese boat was operating 17 nautical miles southwest of China’s HD-981 mega oil rig which was installed a few weeks ago, sparking a major bilateral dispute and protests in Vietnam.
According to Vietnamese state media, all crew members on board the fishing boat were rescued with no injuries. Xinhua, Chinese state media, meanwhile reported that, “a Vietnamese fishing boat capsized after harassing and colliding with a Chinese fishing boat in the South China Sea,” charging the Vietnamese fishing boat as the aggressor in the incident. It added that according to a Chinese government source, “the Chinese side has taken measures to stop Vietnamese interference and lodged serious representations to the Vietnamese side, asking them to immediately stop the disruptive activities.”
The incident demonstrates little progress on resolving the current crisis between Vietnam and China — one that has left Vietnam with relatively few options in its policy play-book. While China has its reasons for continuing to provoke Vietnam over the oil rig, it is likely that it it wants to avoid escalation of the sort that could lead to an armed exchange between Vietnam and China. The Vietnamese side has practiced restraint but incidents like this latest one involving the fishing boat will test the patience of the Vietnamese public which has grown increasingly angry at China’s provocative actions off the coast of Vietnam.
At the same time, the oil rig is a hugely expensive $1 billion asset for China that costs several million dollars to operate every day it remains active in the South China Sea. This is partly why Chinese vessels have been assertive in defending the waters around the rig and will likely continue to keep Vietnamese civilian and military units alike at bay. Doing so also helps China push its territorial claims to the water by denying Vietnam the ability to administer these waters and exert its sovereignty. Over 80 Chinese boats patrol the waters around the rig — a formidable contingent that has kept Vietnam’s government restrained.
According to Chinese state media, the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) oil rig has finished the first phase of its oil exploration operation and has began the second phase of drilling and exploration. In a report detailing China’s drilling activities off oil rig 981, Xinhua notes that “Vietnam had carried out intensive disruptions of Chinese company’s normal oil drilling since May 2,” referring to a series of maritime altercations involving Chinese coast guard and PLAN ships and their Vietnamese counterparts.