Page 1 of 2 China drills its hardpower reserves
By Peter Lee
It is difficult to be blithe about the dispatch of China's HYSY981 drilling rig into disputed waters off the Vietnamese coast. It actually would have been less of a provocation if the PRC had sent the aircraft carrier Liaoning down there instead.
One of the interesting by-products of the US "freedom of navigation" campaign in the South China Sea was the US staking out a position that military operations by foreign vessels inside an exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, were not the kind of economic intrusion that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) intended to preclude.
In fact, after the harassment of the USNS Impeccable, a US Navy
survey vessel that cruises through China's EEZ towing various gadgets, the US went out of its way to assert that the ship was not doing anything that could be construed as economic or even dual use, such as mapping the ocean floor, and insisted the ship was there to track People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine movements.
By that logic, the Liaoning chugging through any waters in the South China Sea, in EEZs disputed or not, is something that nobody can complain about. And indeed, that's what the Liaoning did, on its shakedown cruise in the South China Sea at the end of 2013.
Sending the HYSY981, China's billion dollar deep water drilling rig - with its Vaderesque Death Star mission to intimidate China's hydrocarbon adversaries by demonstrating the PRC's capabilities in unilateral development of contested oil fields - is exactly the kind of destabilizing EEZ gambit that raises tensions and invites a response.
The PRC has left itself some wiggle room by sending the rig to a location close to the Paracel Islands - held by China and deserving some as yet undetermined EEZ of its own - so that the waters are contested rather than unambiguously Vietnamese, but the nature of the incursion implies that the PRC was not expecting Vietnam to suck it up and ignore the PRC challenge.
The HYSY981 is reportedly escorted by a flotilla of dozens of vessels, including ubiquitous maritime patrol vessels and, I would assume, the various support vessels needed to go about its drilling business. I also came across a report, well, actually a statement by an overwrought PRC nationalist blogger, that the rig is also escorted by anti-missile destroyers, which would be a major crossing of the line in bringing overtly military elements into the PRC's economic contention with its maritime neighbors.
Even if the destroyers aren't on the scene, the PRC is committed to dishing it out.
Vietnam released a video of PRC maritime patrols vessel ramming Vietnamese coast guard cutters trying to approach the rig, a sign that the PRC has no qualms about playing the pugnacious/threatening/aggressive regional power for a world audience.
The big question is: why?
Why, after Vietnam has been reasonably cooperative in its dealings with the PRC, most conspicuously by declining to openly support the Philippines' arbitration case against the "nine-dash-line", is the PRC picking on it in such an ostentatiously crude and overbearing fashion?
On the most immediate level, I think it's because the PRC wants the practice - practice in engaging in relatively large, cumbersome naval operations in a genuinely hostile environment, but one in which the embarrassment of a catastrophic military encounter is pretty low. Engaging in a major provocation inside Vietnam's declared EEZ and getting the chance to bully Vietnam, with its underpowered marine forces and lack of a formal defense alliance with a capable regional (Japanese) or world (US) power, fills the bill.
One of the biggest challenges to the PRC's military capability and credibility is that it hasn't fought a hot war with anybody in the last 45 years. With a provocation against Vietnam, the military system gets a nice little exercise.
Bearing in mind a comment I read that "the same capital ships that escorted the Liaoning are with the HYSY981", it doesn't take too much imagination to imagine the Liaoning plunked down inside the same kind of security cordon that now contains the rig.
On the intermediate level, I see the Vietnam gambit as preparation for a confrontation with the country that the PRC really wants to humiliate: the Philippines.
The Philippines is a much riskier nut, since it has 1) a military alliance with the United States and 2) a foreign policy team that has put most of its eggs in the brinksmanship basket, refusing to engage bilaterally with the PRC, relying/hoping that the US will deter PRC aggression and, if some kind of conflict breaks out, intervene in an effective way on the Philippines behalf.
The Philippines apparently sees it the same way, if the May 6 seizure of a Chinese fishing boat is designed to demonstrate its resolve to succor Vietnam by presenting the PRC with the unwelcome prospect of getting embroiled in two maritime disputes - with the prospect of US involvement - at once.
I don't think the PRC will take that particular bait today. But I would not be surprised to see the HYSY981 show up in the "West Philippine Sea" in the near future.
On the higher, long-game level, I believe the PRC leadership has decided that the United States can no longer bring anything positive to the table for the PRC as it has completely and symbolically committed to the Asia pivot and its narrative of PRC containment with President Obama's trip to Asia.
I think it would have been prudent for President Obama to have hedged America's bets by dropping in on Beijing, but he didn't, sending Michelle Obama instead. Die is cast, in other words.
The PRC response, I believe, is not to confront the United States; it is to marginalize it, by driving the Asian security narrative into regions that deeply concern its neighbors but only tangentially engage the United States.
In recent weeks, I would contend that the PRC has reversed the wedge against the US-Japan alliance.