Tensions between China and Vietnam escalated over the weekend as each nation accused the other of violating its sovereignty in the oil-rich South China Sea.
PetroVietnam, the state-owned oil and gas monopoly, said on Sunday that China had sabotaged Vietnamese oil exploration vessels, the latest accusation between the countries over the disputed waters. . . .
The renewed tensions come as Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defence minister, and Robert Gates, his US counterpart, prepare to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile annual Asia defence forum in Singapore next weekend. Mr Liang’s appearance will mark the first time a Chinese defence minister has participated in the meeting.
The Vietnamese harassment claims will put the South China Sea issue back in focus ahead of the regional security meeting, which in recent years has increasingly focused on Chinese maritime behaviour in the disputed waters. South-east Asian countries are concerned about what they perceive to be Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in regional waters.
The rising tensions have also attracted the attention of Washington. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, angered Beijing last July by insisting that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the US and offering to act as a mediator.
In addition to China and Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all claim part or all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves and incorporates key trade routes and abundant fish stocks.
PetroVietnam is working with a number of large international oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, to explore and develop oil and gas assets in South China Sea waters claimed by Vietnam. Mr Hau said that this latest incident “will impact on the attitudes of foreign investors”. . . .
The encounter took place 120 nautical miles off the coast of Phu Yen province in south-central Vietnam, in waters that are claimed by both China and Vietnam. . . .
The clash comes just a week after China and the Philippines pledged “responsible behaviour” in the disputed areas and repeated their commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflicting territorial claims. During a visit of Liang Guanglie, China’s minister of defence, to Manila last Monday, officials from both governments pledged to avoid unilateral moves which could raise tension.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said after the visit incidents in disputed areas could trigger a regional arms race, and force the Philippines to strengthen its military capabilities.
Security experts have said that such an arms race is under way already. Several south-east Asian countries are beefing up their air and sea defences – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have all acquired or placed orders for frigates, fighter aircraft and submarines.
This has it all: the continued salience of nationalist claims and aspirations, the existence of resource conflict as a basic factor in fueling competition, invocations of the primacy of peaceful settlement alongside actual uses of force, arms races, the demonstrated incapacity of the United States to stay out of any foreign quarrel.