OIL EXPLORATION: The Chinese oil rig HD-981 performs drilling operations in the South China Sea on June 14, 2012 (CFP)
The situation in the South China Sea suddenly became extremely tense with the escalation of territorial disputes between China and Viet Nam triggered by Viet Nam's harassment of Chinese oil-drilling operations in China's territorial waters.
Observers warn that Viet Nam's provocative behavior is caused by both domestic elements as well as external support. They advise Viet Nam to stop stirring up trouble and return to rational dialogue before further damage is done to bilateral and regional relationships.
Viet Nam has been disrupting oil-drilling activities in China's offshore waters since May 2 in spite of China's dissuasion and warning. Hanoi accused China of illegally placing the oil rig HD-981 inside Viet Nam's territory.
In late May, anti-China riots erupted in Viet Nam. Chinese businesses and nationals were attacked and burned. At least 20 people were killed in the riots.
On June 4, a Vietnamese ship approached the oil rig and disrupted operations. A Chinese coast guard vessel fired water cannons at the vessel. The two boats later collided though no injuries were reported.
"The Vietnamese Government should take full responsibility for the casualties and damages," said Chen Qinghong, a researcher on Southeast Asian studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). He pointed out that disputes stirred up by Viet Nam in May in the South China Sea had damaged China's sovereignty and jurisdiction, jeopardized the friendly China-Viet Nam relationship as well as regional stability.
"The exploration and drilling activities around the rig have been performed in waters under China's administration," said Chen. According to the researcher, the drilling site of the oil rig is only 17 nautical miles away from China's Zhongjian Island, a part of the Xisha Islands, which means China owns the rights to exploration and management of the waters as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Plus, China has been carrying out exploration and drilling activities in waters off the Xisha Islands for more than 10 years.
Besides, Chen recalled that China's sovereignty and jurisdiction can be traced back to over 1,800 years ago. In 1958, Viet Nam officially recognized China's sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea.
Teng Jianqun, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, stressed that as the Xisha Islands are under China's administration, it's China's legal right to conduct exploration and drilling at the site. He pointed out that the Vietnamese Government has an inescapable responsibility for the escalation of regional tensions.
Observers believe that recent tensions between China and Viet Nam go beyond simple territorial disputes.
The Vietnamese Government tried to shift attention from domestic dissatisfaction, government corruption and its economic downturn to China, said Chen from the CICIR.
Sun Xiaoying, an expert on Southeast Asian studies with the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has been involved in corruption cases for the last two years at least. By provoking territorial disputes with China and fanning up nationalist sentiment, the prime minister has succeeded in diverting domestic focus away from his corruption issue. "The Vietnamese Government has stirred up the country's nationalism to the extreme. They must be aware that the nationalist fever can easily get out of control, which will make the damage hard to recover," warned Sun.
Moreover, Sun reminded that Dung has been warming relations with Washington since taking office in 2006. Under his leadership, the U.S.-Vietnamese joint military drill has become a regular event. Dung recently declared Viet Nam has "evidence" and is "waiting for the right time" to take legal action.
Chen pointed out that Viet Nam attempted to seize the opportunity of Washington's "pivot to Asia," intending to stir up disputes in the South China Sea, and promote its interests with U.S. support.
Washington and Tokyo have publicly supported Viet Nam at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of "destabilizing" the South China Sea. "Japan offers its utmost support for the efforts of ASEAN countries, as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of flight," said Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister.
The stance of Washington and Tokyo is "unacceptable" and "unimaginable," said Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, who was the highest-ranking military official in the Chinese delegation at the Asia-Pacific security forum. Wang stressed, "China has never taken the first step in provoking trouble. China has only been forced to respond to the provocative actions of other parties."