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Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff

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The Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff, also known as the 2014 China-Vietnam oil rig crisis, refers to the tensions between China and Vietnam arising from the Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation moving its Hai Yang Shi You 981 (known in Vietnam as "Hải Dương - 981") oil platform to waters near the disputed Paracel Islands in South China Sea, and the resulting Vietnamese efforts to prevent the platform from establishing a fixed position. According to an announcement by the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration of China, the drilling work of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 would last from May 2 to August 15, 2014.[4] On July 15, China announced that the platform had completed its work and withdrew it fully one month earlier than originally announced.

Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff
Part of South China Sea disputes
Hai Yang Shi You 981 is located in South China Sea
Hai Yang Shi You 981
Hai Yang Shi You 981
Location of Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil platform
Location
Result China temporarily withdrew the oil rig
Belligerents

 China

 Vietnam

Strength
1 drilling platform, 6 warships, 40 coast guard vessels, over 30 transport ships and tugboats, 34-40 ironclad fishing boats, Su-27[citation needed] and Shaanxi Y-8 patrol planes[1] 60 vessels: coast guard, fisheries surveillance and wooden fishing boats[1][2]
Casualties and losses
1 fishing boat sunk[3]

The standoff is regarded by analysts as the most serious development in the territorial disputes between the two countries ever since the Johnson South Reef Skirmish in 1988 in which 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed. It has also triggered an unprecedented wave of anti-China protests in Vietnam and attracted political commenters and scholars to re-evaluate Vietnam’s diplomatic, security, and domestic policies towards China.

Contents

Historical Origin of ConflictEdit

 
Territorial claims in the South China Sea

The Paracel Islands have been a subject of territorial dispute between China, Taiwan and Vietnam in the 20th century. In 1974, China and the US-backed South Vietnam fought the Battle of the Paracel Islands in which China took over the entire archipelago. South Vietnam never relinquished its claims, while Chinese and Soviet-backed North Vietnam (which did not administer the islands) supported the 1958 Declaration by China claiming all of the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Pratas Islands.[5] However, when North Vietnam reunited the country following the Vietnam War it repeated the former South Vietnamese claims.

China claims the sea and land inside the "nine-dashed line" which covers about 80% of the South China Sea as its territory, which includes the Paracel Islands.[6][7] On the other hand, Vietnam has attributed China’s forceful occupation of the Paracel Islands as an illegitimate way to gain possession of the Paracel Islands, and denounced the gross violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty by the People’s Republic of China. Vietnam’s claims to the Paracel Islands stem from their early historical rights, as well as the economic heritage value of the Islands to Vietnam. The Vietnamese have claimed to had knowledge of the Hoang Sa Islands long before Westerners arrived to the South China Sea and publicised the name of “Paracels” internationally.[8] It has also been scientifically determined that the Vietnamese presence on the Paracel Islands started in the 15th century. The oldest Vietnamese document on national heritage, done sometime between 1630 and 1653 by a scholar named Do Ba, has identified the Paracel Islands, then known as “yellow sand”, as a destination frequented by the Vietnamese authorities to obtain big quantities of gold.[9]

Since the normalisation of Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1991, China and Vietnam have improved mechanisms to manage border disputes, which should be seen as a progressive move in the region. However, there is still a lack of agreement on the scope of dispute, which has caused discussions on the Paracel archipelago to be excluded from dispute management talks.[10]

Background of CrisisEdit

On 2 May 2014, China National Offshore Oil Corporation moved its $1 billion Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig to a location 17 nautical miles from Triton Island, the southwestern-most island of the Paracel Islands.[6] According to Vietnam, its location has been shifted 3 times since then.[11] The initial location was about 17 nautical miles off Triton Island (part of the Paracel Islands), 120 nautical miles east of Vietnam's Ly Son Island and 180 nautical miles south of China's Hainan Island, in which the last two nearest undisputed features generate a continental shelf.[12] Up till now, it has been sitting on Vietnam's claimed continental shelf and on the Vietnamese side of any median line generated from the coastlines of the two countries.[12] The location is also at the edge of hydrocarbon blocks 142 and 143 which were already created by Vietnam but had not been offered for exploitation to foreign oil companies, nor had been acknowledged by other disputed parties of South China Sea. China’s move in the region has violated several multilateral agreements, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea, and bilateral agreements between the leaders of China and Vietnam.

Soon after China moved its oil rig to the south of Paracel Islands and established an exclusion zone around it, Vietnam vociferously protested the move as an infringement of its sovereignty. It sent 29 ships in an attempt to disrupt the rig's placement and operations. The ships met resistance from Chinese ships escorting the rig, and Vietnam stated that its ships were repeatedly rammed and sprayed with water, resulting in six people being injured,[12] while China stated that its ships were also rammed and it sprayed water in self-defense. On May 26, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank near the oil rig after being rammed by a Chinese vessel; the incident was shown by a video footage from Vietnam a week later.[13]

Internationally, Vietnam attempted to garner support at the ASEAN summit which took place on May 10–11. Domestically, the tensions with China resulted in people protesting against Chinese actions, which was considered rare in a communist country where the government clamped down on public protests.[14] On May 13 and 14, anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam escalated into riots, where many foreign businesses and Chinese workers were targeted.[7] Businesses owned by foreign investors from China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea were subjected to vandalism and looting due to the confusion by protesters who believed the establishments to be Chinese.[15][16] However, the scale and extent to which the riots played out have also caused commenters to highlight the contributing factor of growing discontent among Vietnam's rapidly-growing industrial workforce. [17]

Sino-Vietnamese RelationsEdit

Historical RelationsEdit

While China and Vietnam are nominally socialist brothers, political observers and international relations specialists have described the relationship between the two countries to be complicated as it has not always been cordial. In 1979, China invaded Vietnam in response to Vietnam invading the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. The two countries have sporadically fought until relations were normalised in 1991. Many have also said that Vietnam’s memory of Chinese imperial rule, invasions and domination over the Vietnamese is a historical baggage that contributes to the inevitable and ineliminable tension between both countries.[18]

While the narrative of prolonged historical animosity between China and Vietnam has been used by many scholars and political commenters to explain official and domestic reactions towards territorial disputes, historians have argued that the nationalistic idea that Sino-Vietnamese relations have been in a constant state of aggravation is not well established. Despite sporadic conflicts between China and Vietnam, the Vietnamese have lived in relative peace and security under the Sinitic empire. Furthermore, there were only five records of military operations launched by the Chinese against Vietnamese rulers, which each confrontation arising from unusual circumstances. [19] In other words, historical analysis on Sino-Vietnamese relations has suggested that the conflicts between the two countries were mere blips in what would otherwise be characterised as a relatively cooperative historical relationship.

Post-Normalisation RelationsEdit

Since the normalisation of Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1991, the two countries have enjoyed a cooperative and mutually-beneficial relationship despite sporadic tensions arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Subsequently, bilateral diplomacy was actively pursued to re-establish relations and address claims to the disputed territories, which was reflected in the numerous meetings between the top Vietnamese and Chinese leaders. Dispute management approaches, in the form of the Basic Principles Agreement and high-level summits, were introduced and have since improved mechanisms and the management of border disputes. [20]

Beyond security cooperation, the two countries have also strengthened their economic, cultural, and political ties. In 2017, the visit of General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, to China produced a joint communique outlining the intent to increase political meetings, economic trade, and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.[21] Despite the oil rig crisis in 2014 and China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, Sino-Vietnamese ties have generally thrived across the fields of politics, economy, and culture. [22]This is perceived by many to be facilitated by a Vietnamese leadership that is pro-China. [23]

Vietnam's Hedging Strategy against China since NormalisationEdit

 
The United States and Vietnam Announce Historic Partnership To Establish a Peace Corps Program in Vietnam

While Vietnam pursues a policy of economic and diplomatic engagement towards China, the country has also established economic and diplomatic relations with other states and regional organisations to balance against China’s aggressiveness in the disputed region. This dual strategy is known as “hedging” in international relations. Hedging is typically employed by small states to seek the middle ground and reduce the scale of threats. [24]

On one hand, Vietnam continues to cooperate and deepen economic relations with China in order to boost its domestic economy, while having high-level talks and engagement with Chinese leaders to settle bilateral disputes and tensions[25]

On the other hand, Vietnam has sought to establish strategic diplomatic ties and security cooperation with other countries and organisations with a common interest in maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea, such as the United States, Japan, ASEAN, Russia and India.[26] There was a trend towards a gradual improvement in US-Vietnamese relations, epitomised by President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to the United States in 2013, where a series of partnership across the fields of politics, security, economy, technology, environment, and education were announced.[27] In the light of the oil rig crisis, Vietnam welcomed the position taken by the United States, which singled out Beijing’s “unilateral” action as particularly “provocative and unhelpful.”[28] Speculations on Vietnam’s hedging strategy by moving closer to the United States were reinforced by America’s decision to partially lift its weapons embargo against Vietnam due to the heightened security threat[29].

Japan also plays an important role in Vietnam’s hedging strategy. While Japan is not involved in the territorial dispute, it sees the vital shipping lane as strategically important.[30] In the light of the oil rig crisis, Japan has provided coast guard ships to Vietnam as a form of support against China. In September 2018, Vietnam accepted Japan’s first submarine visit, which is a development that signals Japan’s efforts to play a more active security role in the region and Vietnam’s efforts to engage in its wider omnidirectional foreign policy.[31]

Lastly, Vietnam has also engaged ASEAN in the South China Sea issue, as it sees the regional organisation as a suitable platform to transform its bilateral dispute with China into a multilateral agenda, grouped under the bigger conflict about overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. [32] In the light of the oil rig crisis between China and Vietnam, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers released a statement in which they “expressed their serious concerns over the on-going developments in the South China Sea, which have increased tensions in the area” and “urged all parties concerned, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area; and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force”. [33]

However, with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership signalling the United States’ pivot away from Asia[34], political commenters have questioned the counterbalancing role of the United States in the South China Sea. Furthermore, there are clear limits to the political will within ASEAN to address the South China Sea issue. This limitation was manifested when ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement on the South China Sea issue in 2012[35]. While ASEAN has consensually released a statement to address the South China Sea issue in the light of the oil rig crisis, the statement was carefully worded to avoid explicit mention of China.[36] In addition, with the rise of China’s economy, China is likely to remain as Vietnam’s biggest trade partner, which makes maintaining cordial relations with China essential to Vietnam’s economy and, consequently, the political legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party[37].

Domestic ReactionEdit

 
Vietnamese anti-Chinese protests in Hanoi

The 2014 oil rig incident has unleashed a series of anti-China protests and demonstrations in Vietnam. The demonstrations were initially peaceful in nature and displayed popular support for the government’s tough rhetoric towards China. These demonstrations were seen to embody pro-government nationalism. However, the pro-government nationalism has evolved into anti-government sentiment as peaceful protests escalated into violent riots. Analysts have suggested that the riots, which occurred predominantly in industrial parks and have targeted both Chinese and non-Chinese factories, were influenced by several factors. Beyond anti-China sentiment, the riots were also seen to reflect the growing discontent among Vietnam’s rapidly growing industrial workforce, as well as the wider dissatisfaction towards the Vietnamese leadership.

Pro-Government NationalismEdit

The Vietnamese leadership has built its political legitimacy by branding itself as defenders of Vietnam against external threats, and has employed the historical narrative of constant and prolonged animosity in Sino-Vietnamese relations to illustrate the political will and ability of the Communist Party to defend the country. Similarly, the Vietnamese’s official response to the oil rig incident was carefully curated to maintain its popular support. In a press briefing on 15 May, Vietnamese Ministry of Affairs spokesman, Le Hai Binh, said that “Vietnam demand China to withdraw the oil rig Haiyang 981 and all of its ships and aircraft from Vietnam’s waters and not to repeat similar actions” and that “Vietnam will take all measures in line with international law to protect its legitimate rights and interests”. [38]The tough stance taken by the Vietnamese government to oppose China’s aggression, in the form of verbal opposition and threat of legal action, was in line with the leadership’s commitment to maintain the narrative of its position as defenders of the nation against external threats.[39]

The Vietnamese demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, which were relatively peaceful and were, therefore, seen as a display of popular support for the government’s tough stance towards China.[40] Furthermore, there are suspicions that the Vietnamese leadership has deliberately condoned the demonstrations as public demonstrations of such scale are highly unusual in Vietnam. Officers in plain clothes were reportedly handing out signage and the state television covered the protests extensively.[41] Analysts have suggested that the Vietnamese government’s tactful approach to direct negative domestic sentiment against China towards a more positive and effective form of pro-government nationalism which would improve national unity was in the light of Vietnam’s sluggish economic performance, which has threatened the communist regime’s legitimacy.[42] The South China Sea dispute has, therefore, provided an avenue for the Vietnamese government to divert domestic attention away from its poor governance by portraying itself as a victim of China’s malicious ambitions, thereby gaining sympathy from both the international community and its citizens. [43]

Anti-Government SentimentEdit

However, the peaceful demonstrations escalated into violent riots on May 13. In Bình Dương and Dong Nai, industrial parks and factories with Chinese characters on their signboards were attacked. Following which, other foreign plants belonging to American, German, Taiwan and South Korean companies were also vandalised and attacked, with several factories burnt down overnight. Consequently, other foreign factories in these industrial zones were forced to close, resulting in a significant drop in profits and a decline of investor confidence in Vietnam’s international image and the government’s ability to ensure domestic stability.[44] Analysts have, therefore, suggested that the anti-China protests were symbolic as they challenged the state’s domestic legitimacy by undermining the government’s efforts to attract foreign investment and portray Vietnam as a politically safe and stable destination for foreign investors. [45]

In addition, the industrial riots, while triggered by the oil rig incident, were also reflective of the growing discontent and grievances among Vietnam’s rapidly growing industrial workforce.[46] Sociological studies on riots have highlighted that the motivation behind riots typically stems from several grievances, and goes far beyond the initial resentment that has sparked the riot. In the case of the industrial riots in Vietnam, anti-China sentiment was also conflated with grievances among Vietnamese workers, who believe that they were exploited and subjected to harsh working conditions imposed by their foreign employers. [47]

Beyond industrial workers, interviews with Vietnamese residents in the wake of the oil rig crisis have reportedly found that the anti-China protests have also encompassed elements of anger and frustration towards the Vietnamese government.[48] Likewise, in the aftermath of the crisis, anti-government frustration intensified. This is due to the public’s perception of the state’s hypocrisy in its relations with China. Despite the bold rhetoric towards China, the Vietnamese leadership did not take any legal action. Furthermore, there is also a perception that the Vietnamese government is willing to sacrifice the country’s territorial sovereignty in exchange for better economic ties with China. These grievances have fuelled a growing divide between the Vietnamese state and the general public, further eroding the people’s trust and confidence in the government. [49]

Crisis Defused - Implications and ReflectionsEdit

The oil rig crisis was defused on July 15, when the China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced that the platform had completed its work and withdrew it fully one month earlier than originally announced. Beijing publicly announced the operation was concluded “in accordance with relevant company’s plan” and had “nothing to do with any external factor”. Vietnamese leaders have hailed the early withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig as a victory and thanked the international community for its support.[50] The withdrawal of the drilling rig, which was regarded to have defused and ended the crisis, was an outcome that benefited both China and Vietnam. Both countries could claim to have achieved their goals - Vietnam’s capability to sustain pressure on China and China’s completion of its drilling operation.[51]

Uncertainty in the Future Direction of International Relations in AsiaEdit

The oil rig crisis has called into question the efficacy of dispute management strategies with respect to the South China Sea. Despite the presence of diplomacy and military channels between China and Vietnam to deal with crisis situations, the relatively long duration of the crisis implies that direct bilateral engagement is a limited approach to de-escalate tension. Furthermore, while China withdrew the oil rig one month earlier than its planned date, Beijing’s statement on the completion of the drilling operation has suggested that the decision was not a result of effective Sino-Vietnamese engagement. [52]

Furthermore, the political will of ASEAN to address China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea is questioned given ASEAN’s lukewarm response to the oil rig crisis and the avoidance of explicitly mentioning China in its statement. That said, China and ASEAN have since engaged in discussions to negotiate the terms of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Speaking at the ASEAN-China Summit on 14 November 2018, Philippine President Duterte reaffirmed ASEAN’s commitment to reach an agreement on the Code of Conduct in the disputed South China Sea (COC), and has implied that the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text would be completed by 2019. [53]

Analysts have also suggested that the oil rig crisis has given more clarity to Beijing’s aims in the South China Sea. China’s increasing military muscle-flexing in the South and East China Seas is seen to undermine the United States’ credibility as a security provider in the Asia-Pacific region. China seeks to demonstrate to Asian states that Washington’s security commitment to the region is limited as it is unwilling to risk a military clash with China.[54] This will in turn allow China to advance its power and influence in the region. Others have also suggested that as Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness in the region is carefully calculated to prevent Southeast Asian states from counterbalancing with the United States. China predicts that as its military power grows and Southeast Asian states become increasingly dependent on China for economic growth, the claimant states will eventually give in to China. Furthermore, China predicts that the Trump administration’s pivot away from Asia implies that America is less likely to directly intervene in the South China Sea dispute. [55]

Legitimacy of the Vietnamese GovernmentEdit

In addition, the oil rig crisis has implications on the domestic legitimacy of the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese government’s legitimacy rests on the pillars of economic growth, defending the country from external threats, and building an inclusive society (dân giàu, nước mạnh, dân chủ, công bằng, văn minh)[56]. The oil rig crisis has surfaced cracks in the public’s confidence towards the Vietnamese government’s ability to take a hard line approach in its policy towards China. The anti-China protests and riots were also manifestations of the public’s frustration towards their working conditions and the country’s sluggish economic growth. This presents a dilemma for the Vietnamese leadership, as it seeks to promote economic growth by further cooperating and engaging with China, while being careful to ensure that economic development does not come at the expense of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty. The nationalistic enthusiasm which the Vietnamese government has fostered to strengthen national unity and party legitimacy has, in turn, made Vietnamese accommodations towards the South China Sea issue politically elusive. [57]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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