Vietnam has since May 2 carried out intensive disruptions of the Chinese oil company’s drilling activities in China's offshore waters in spite of China's dissuasion and warning. The Vietnamese media, however, have wrongfully accused China of illegally placing the oil rig HD-981 inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and spared no effort to portray Vietnam as a victim bullied by China. Instead of ferreting out the truth, some foreign media have simply parroted the Vietnamese side of the story.
The truth is, so far China and Vietnam have not reached consensus on delimiting their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, but the waters in which the oil rig is operated are only 17 nautical miles (31.5 kilometers) from Zhongjian Island of China’s Xisha Islands while about 150 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast. In other words, the drilling site is located only five nautical miles from the outer limit of China’s territorial sea and is undeniably within China’s exclusive economic zone, regardless of whichever principle is applied in future delimitation. Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China has the sovereign rights to explore and exploit the natural resources in its exclusive economic zone, where it also has the jurisdiction with regard to the establishment and use of artificial island, installations and structures, etc. It is thus groundless for the Vietnamese media and some foreign media to label China’s normal and legitimate drilling operations in these waters as “provocative”.
Even more worrying is the reckless moves by Hanoi in waters near China’s drilling site. Vietnam has a history of inviting and working with foreign companies on oil and gas exploration in the contested waters of the South China Sea. In this respect, China has lodged solemn protests but has practiced restraint without taking any on-site countermeasures targeted at the Vietnamese side, but this is not to say Beijing is less capable of doing so. Rather, Beijing has attached great importance to its ties with Hanoi and regional stability. While in a stark contrast, facing China’s placement of an oil rig in waters administered by China, Vietnam not only sabotages China’s drilling activities but also stages a self-victimization show.
Although China has established around the oil rig a safety area with a radius of three nautical miles and advised other vessels not to enter, Hanoi has dispatched a large number of vessels, including the armed ones to the waters, and apart from instigating collision with Chinese ships, the Vietnamese side has also placed fishing nets and large obstacles in these waters, not only posing security threat to the Chinese escort ships and facilities but also severely undermining navigational safety and order.
Leaders of Vietnam have been keen on overstating the situation at sea and using politics to incite anti-China sentiments. The Vietnamese media is happy to dance to the government’s tune and has launched a nationwide propaganda campaign to woo public support for Hanoi to take a hard-line stance against Beijing.
With the bilateral tensions simmering, anti-China protests spread across Vietnam and turned deadly earlier this month. Running so out of control, the looting and arson targeted not only Chinese nationals and companies in Vietnam but also other foreign-owned factories. To a great extent, the anti-China violence is a direct result of all the media hype and the dirty politics played by Hanoi, and in return the country is now reaping what it has sown as the rampage has damaged the state image of Vietnam in the international community and also dimmed the country’s investment prospect.
What Hanoi is suffering is mostly self-inflicted. Some Vietnamese scholars have urged their government to follow Manila in launching international arbitration against Beijing, but if Hanoi did so, it would then be setting fires it could not put out. Beijing's consistent stand is solving disputes through bilateral negotiation and opposing any unilateral move to internationalize the disputes. China insists so neither because it is afraid of justifying itself in front of the international community nor because it lacks historical and legal grounds to substantiate its sovereign claims. It is because Beijing believes that only outcomes achieved through bilateral negotiation are the most acceptable, deemed fair, effective to both parties and long-lasting.
It is of utmost urgency that Vietnam stops its disturbing acts and shows sincerity in mending its fences with China for the greater good of bilateral relations and regional stability. Otherwise, it will only go further down the course of confrontation and box itself into a dead-end alley.