China's Escalation In The South China Sea Is Unprecedented
Anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam, the result of protests that were tolerated and even encouraged by the country's authoritarian government, has left dozens dead this week. The uproar began when China's state oil company moved one of its rigs to an oil block inside of Vietnam's "exclusive economic zone" in the South China Sea; within days, suspected Chinese-owned businesses were being torched and Chinese citizens were fleeing to neighboring countries for safety.
Was the escalation a calculated move by an increasingly-aggressive Beijing? And are the neighboring countries, whose relationship has been marked by over a millennium of tension - and who have fought multiple armed engagements with one another over the past 40 years - hurtling towards an even more dangerous confrontation? A quick rundown of why the situation might be a little different from usual flare-ups over the ever-disputed South China Sea.This an unprecedented Chinese move. As Caryl Thayer writes at The Diplomat, "This incident marks the first time China has placed one of its oil rigs in the EEZ of another state without prior permission." As Thayer notes, the Chinese have claimed that the rig is in "territorial Chinese waters," but it seems as if they understood the potentially-explosive nature of what they were doing: "The oil rig was accompanied by as many as 80 ships, including seven People's Liberation Army Navy warships."
Both countries have been building towards something like this. In 2010, Vietnam purchased six diesel submarines from Russia in anticipation of future confrontations with China. According to the same Reuters report, China was also pressuring businesses not to invest in Vietnamese exploration of "disputed" oil and gas blocks. In March of 2012, Vietnam officially protested the Chinese state oil company's decision to open up bidding on 19 blocks in the South China Sea. As this graphic indicates, China claims much of the South China Sea for itself:
Still, China's specific motives here are sort of vague. Why escalate tensions with Vietnam now, just days after a U.S. presidential visit to the region, and after recent improvements in Chinese-Vietnamese relations? Analyst Ely Ratner sees the situation as evidence that "domestic bureaucratic and political imperatives are overcoming the logic of strategy in Beijing" - in other words, Chinese leaders decided to move the oil rig without thinking through the potential strategic consequences. At the same time, Ratner writes that China has been less reactive lately in the South China Sea, and more willing to assert what it believes to be its territorial rights without waiting for its neighbors to provoke it.
So now what? Analysts say that this is the worst crisis in Chinese-Vietnamese relations since a 1979 border war that killed thousands on both sides. Even if this situation doesn't reach a violent tipping point, China's state oil company asserts that over a third of the country's claimed oil and gas wealth is under the South China Sea. And if China can use this incident to establish a foothold in disputed waters, it's could be the first in a series of escalations and controversies in a resource-rich, disputed, and increasingly-militarized body of water.