Last October, during a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung promised to buttress "political trust" between the two South China Sea (SCS) claimants. Last week, while I was speaking at a conference in Da Nang, Vietnam where the Chinese were visibly absent, verbal accusations were flying both on land and in the media. The proximate cause of tensions is the placement of Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HS-981) deep-sea drilling platform inside Vietnam's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Since that unilateral maneuver in early May, China has created a cordon sanitaire around the rig by deploying military, coast guard, and fishing vessels in three concentric patrol circles. To date, a Vietnamese fishing vessel has been sunk and China has made unsubstantiated claims that Vietnamese boats have hit Chinese vessels on more than 1,400 occasions. Dueling videos are currently on the internet.
While Vietnamese behavior is not beyond reproach, China might have a better case to make if it would adhere to international law. China has every right to protect a drilling rig inside its territorial waters, but a rig outside of its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters is entitled to only a 500-meter safety zone. But the Chinese are apparently seeking to establish more imperious ends. HS-981 is within China's 9-dashed line that covers some 80 percent of the SCS. The Chinese hesitate to articulate this because an assertion of historical claims has no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indeed, the Philippines is pursuing international arbitration to help clarify this important point. Beijing is opportunistically seeking to flex its newfound muscle and make the 9-dash line a de facto and de jure reality. In effect, China wants the South (and East) China Sea as an inland lake.