In High Seas, China Moves Unilaterally
BEIJING — It is the pride of China’s state-run oil industry and the nation’s first deepwater drilling rig, a vessel as big as a football field and as tall as a 40-story building, with a $1 billion price tag. Last week, it crawled through the South China Sea, pulled by heavy-duty tugs, and parked in one of the most sensitive spots possible, about 17 miles off a speck of an island claimed by both China and Vietnam.
The Vietnamese, at times embraced in brotherly Communist Party fealty by China, were taken by surprise. Hanoi assumed the rig, known as HD-981, was just passing through, people close to the government said.
At least twice in recent years, China has sought to explore these waters and backed down after protests by Vietnam. Just six months ago, during a visit of the Chinese prime minister to Hanoi, the two sides announced that they would try to find ways to jointly develop oil and gas fields.
That good will evaporated this week when Beijing made clear the drilling rig was staying put. It set off four days of confrontation, with dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese naval vessels ramming one another and China using water cannons in a standoff that threatens to push a region known for its economic development toward military conflict.
China has not been shy in recent years about making broad claims to control much of the South China Sea. But by installing an expensive drilling rig in disputed waters, it now appears more willing to act first and invite diplomacy later. It is in effect creating “facts” in the water that its regional rivals, and ultimately the United States, must either accept or fight.
China signaled it would take unilateral steps last year, when it declared an air defense zone over parts of the East China Sea that includes islands at the center of a long-smoldering dispute with Japan. In the battle of wills with Vietnam, China has unleashed a new and potentially powerful tool in its battle for territory: its oil industry and the rigs a state oil-company official once called “our mobile national territory.”
The deployment of the rig is a possible game changer in China’s determination to dominate the South China Sea, as oil exploration requires substantial investment and often protection, which in China’s case would be provided by its ships, including its navy.
“China has been taking incremental steps, escalating and increasing its presence in the South China Sea, but this is crossing a threshold,” said Holly Morrow, a fellow in the Geopolitics of Energy program at Harvard who served on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.
It is unclear if China’s gambit will end up the way its leaders hope. Two years ago, China was able to nudge aside the Philippines from a disputed reef, without a fight, by simply refusing to abide by an American-brokered agreement. The Philippines retreated, as promised. The Chinese did not, and have controlled the reef, the Scarborough Shoal, and its rich fishery ever since.
Vietnam has proved to be a tougher adversary, sending out its own ships to meet the Chinese flotilla and, according to Chinese government reports, using them to ram Chinese ships as many as 171 times in four days.
A prominent Vietnamese political analyst, Nguyen Quang A, summarized the standoff this way: “Invasion is in their blood, and resistance is in our blood.”
The timing of the move was perceived by some in the region as a test not only of the ability of Southeast Asian nations to stand up to their far more powerful northern neighbor, but also of President Obama’s resolve less than a month after he promised to support American allies in Asia as they deal with a stronger China.
China’s action was almost certainly a long-term plan — the deployment of a deep water drilling rig takes months of preparation. But a senior Asian diplomat with deep ties in the region said some officials were left with the impression after Mr. Obama’s visit that the United States was eager to avoid direct confrontation with China over its claims in the South China Sea.
At a news conference in Manila, Mr. Obama sidestepped a question about whether Washington would defend the Philippines if a territorial dispute with China became an armed conflict, instead saying “we don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes.” A few days earlier he had made a stronger statement of support for Japan in its maritime disputes with China.
On Friday, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said the United States had been clear that it opposed unilateral steps or the threat of force by the Chinese and that it was strengthening military ties with its allies, including the Philippines. The United States does not have a defense treaty with Vietnam.
“We have reaffirmed our support for our mutual defense treaties with allies in the region, and have supported the efforts of the Philippines to pursue international arbitration to resolve maritime disputes,” Mr. Rhodes said
Few believe that energy discoveries were the primary reason for the arrival of rig HD-981, which is owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or Cnooc, the state-run energy giant.
For decades, geologists and major energy companies have debated whether the seabed of the South China Sea holds commercially viable deposits of oil and gas. Many are skeptical, especially regarding the area around the Paracel Islands, which the rig expects to explore and which a 2013 assessment by the United States Energy Information Administration deemed to be especially unlikely to hold much oil or gas.
“Cnooc is a business but also a political actor,” said Ms. Morrow of Harvard. “It’s never about energy completely, it’s about sovereignty.”
Still, the company’s enthusiasm for drilling in the area may have been bolstered by three-dimensional seismic tests conducted last May and June, according to a report in the state run news agency, Xinhua.
Previously, only two-dimensional seismic surveys, which are less reliable, had been conducted, said Peter Dutton, professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Another incentive for drilling is that the site is close to two exploratory areas where Exxon Mobil discovered substantial oil and gas reserves in 2011 and 2012, energy lawyers in Hong Kong said.
“China’s location of the drilling rig in this block cannot be attributed solely to provocation,” Mr. Dutton said.
In Vietnam, the Chinese move is challenging the government’s delicate balancing act between strong anti-China sentiment and not wanting to get too close to the United States.
Hanoi maintains a military hotline with the People’s Liberation Army, while resisting Washington’s invitations to participate in joint military exercises and overtures for access to Cam Ranh Bay, a deepwater base on the South China Sea.
Still, Vietnam can ill afford to alienate China; it is increasingly economically dependent on China for cheap parts that are used in its growing manufacturing sector, and for hosting poor agrarian workers in southern China.
The Cnooc oil rig and other acts of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past few months will now take center stage, according to Ernest Z. Bower and Gregory B. Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who posted an article on its website.
“There is no telling who will blink first,” they wrote.
Jane Perlez reported from Beijing, and Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong. Reporting was contributed by Mike Ives from Hanoi, Vietnam, and Michael D. Shear from Washington. Bree Feng contributed research from Beijing.