On Thursday, China said that it would move a second oil rig into the waters off Vietnam’s coast, where the two countries have been engaged in a protracted dispute since early May. China’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) posted a notice on its website stating that this new rig will be installed between June 18 and 20. Its final location will be at 17°14.1′ North latitude and 109°31′ East longitude off the coast of Vietnam.
China’s HYSY 981 oil rig sparked a major bilateral dispute over the sovereignty of the South China Sea waters off Vietnam’s coast. While Vietnam claims that the waters belong to it as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), China claims that it holds sovereignty over the territory based on its claim to the Paracel (Xisha) Islands. The Paracel Islands are also disputed between China and Vietnam.
According to the Associated Press, the “600-meter (1,970-foot) -long rig is being towed southeast of its current position south of Hainan Island and will be in its new location closer to Vietnam by Friday.” Despite the fact that this rig will also set up shop in disputed waters, it is less likely to draw the same sort of condemnation from the Vietnamese government as the first rig did. First, the new rig is somewhat more distant from the controversial Paracel Islands. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the second oil rig is “operating within the coastal waters off China’s Hainan Island,” making this drill’s position far less controversial. Additionally, the AP cites an anonymous Vietnamese official who notes that the second rig will be installed in waters that China has already explored in the past. So far, it appears that Hanoi is less concerned about this second oil rig than it continues to be about HYSY 981.
The rig is described by China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) as the second largest in the company’s fleet of rigs. CNOOC is a state-owned enterprise and as such these actions take place with at least the knowledge, if not acquiescence, of China’s government. With two oil rigs in place, it remains to be seen if China will also move additional coast guard and PLAN assets into these waters to protect the platforms. In May, China moved 80 ships, mostly civilian and coast guard, to accompany HYSY 981 on its foray into Vietnam’s EEZ.
There is also some ambiguity about precisely where this second rig will end up. According to the commander of the Vietnamese Coast Guard, Nguyen Quang Dam, this second rig might end up just inside of China’s continental shelf. The New York Times cites Holly Morrow of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs who notes that the coordinates suggest that the “rig’s final position would be right on or close to the equidistant line between Vietnam and Hainan.”
By all measures, this second oil rig will not provoke Vietnam to the same extent that HYSY 981 did in early May. Still, the timing of China’s statement on this second oil rig is curious given that Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi was just in Hanoi to nominally discuss the issue with Vietnamese officials and attempt to salvage some normalcy in bilateral ties.