May 14, 2014 00:00 By Keith Johnson
Beijing has deployed an oilrig in its battle for the South China Sea, a move that threatens to provoke Russia's wrath
China’s muscular efforts to extend its control over broad reaches of the South China Sea have already clashed – literally – with neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that appear increasingly determined to push back against Beijing.
Just days after Beijing dispatched an oilrig to waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, Chinese naval vessels apparently rammed and damaged at least one Vietnamese patrol boat in the area. Though no shots were reported to have been fired, Vietnamese media said Chinese ships used water cannons to enforce an unusually large 5-kilometre no-go zone the Chinese have established around the rig.
The incident, the latest escalation in a regional flashpoint already primed for conflict, underscores the lengths China seems prepared to go to defend its ambitious territorial claims as well as the unintended consequences of China’s take-no-prisoners approach to foreign relations. More specifically, experts on the region said that China risks creating a coalition of the exasperated among the oft-bickering nations of Southeast Asia who are increasingly speaking out against Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims.
What’s more, by picking a fight with Vietnam, China could complicate its relationship with Russia. Moscow has assiduously cultivated closer ties with Vietnam in part to hedge against Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia. Russia will finance and build the construction of new nuclear reactors in Vietnam, which will tie the two countries together in an energy relationship for decades, for example.
The two countries are even closer when it comes to defence. Hanoi’s most ambitious recent arms purchase was the acquisition of six modern, Kilo-class Russian submarines – meant explicitly to give Vietnam more naval muscle to deal with China’s rapidly growing navy. Russia has sold Vietnam a number of other naval vessels, including frigates and small craft, and is trying to lock up a supply arrangement for its own ships at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval facility. The moves are widely seen as a part of a concerted Russian bid to rebuild its influence in the region and check Chinese expansion in Asia. China and Russia have had a sharp geopolitical rivalry for years along their huge border, and growing Chinese influence in Central and Southeast Asia has Russia nervous about China becoming too dominant in Asia.
The new clashes came last weekend, when Vietnamese patrol boats sailed to an area of the South China Sea about 200km off the Vietnamese coast, but which lies in waters also claimed by Beijing, to protest the arrival of China’s first deepwater oilrig, the massive, billion-dollar Haiyang Shiyou 981.
Chinese naval and coast guard vessels sent to escort the rig outnumbered and outgunned the Vietnamese force, police officials said at a press conference in Hanoi, and pounced on the Vietnamese ships. Officials in Hanoi said the most serious incident, the high-speed ramming of one ship on Saturday, took place about 16km from the rig.
China’s resort to more aggressive tactics, including the use of both naval and coast guard vessels to protect its drilling rig, seems to be boomeranging on Beijing in a way that the country’s earlier, less overt moves into disputed seas did not.
The Philippines set a precedent earlier this year when it sued China over Beijing’s snatch and grab of several specks of land in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Vietnamese officials, their nationalism at a high pitch with the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, have deployed both strong words and strong vessels to push back against what they see as Chinese intransigence.
Other countries in the region, notably Indonesia and Malaysia, also seem to be moving away from the neutral stance they had traditionally maintained toward the maritime disputes, and are now vocally protesting Chinese behaviour.
Indonesian defence officials, though not ones from its foreign ministry, have publicly expressed concern about Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak used a joint appearance in the administrative capital of Putrajaya last month to stress the need for all countries to preserve freedom of navigation and avoid the use of force in maritime disputes, a clear, if unstated reference to China.
“Indonesia has been more outspoken, and the US-Malaysia joint statement during Obama’s visit went farther on maritime issues than most expected,” said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific programme at the Centre for a New American Security. “One likely by-product of this incident will be enhanced coordination among the claimants to different areas of the South China Sea, especially the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, which is already occurring in unprecedented ways.”
What’s less clear is the impact that China’s aggressive behaviour will have on its newly improved relations with Moscow. The two countries are close to finally signing a huge energy deal that would see natural gas exported from Russia’s far east to China’s energy-hungry northeast. Both countries need that: Russia’s European markets are gun shy of relying too much on energy exports from Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, and China wants to find reliable supplies of affordable energy.
Russian-China ties are advancing in other areas, as well: The two countries will hold joint naval manoeuvres this month in the East China Sea, another body of water where Chinese claims collide with those of another country, in this case Japan. During his Asia swing last month, Obama reaffirmed the US defence commitment to Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are a source of fierce brinksmanship between Tokyo and Beijing.
China’s aggressive approach to disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea could make its rapprochement with Moscow tougher to pull off, said Ratner. “China’s bullying around Asia is going to put limits on how close it can get with Russia, because some of the victims of that bullying are close with Russia.”