A message blared from the loudspeakers of Vietnam Coast Guard vessel CSB-8003 and echoed across the deep azure waters of the South China Sea. “This is a warning! Remove your vessels immediately!” said the automated Chinese voice. “You must remove your vessels and the Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig – this is Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.”
The 1,400-tonne ship, idling near a handful of Vietnamese maritime surveillance and coast guard ships, was 15 nautical miles from the 40-storey, $1bn rig installed by China two months ago. But soon it was being chased away, along with the other Vietnamese vessels, by a towering Chinese maritime surveillance ship, itself defended by an armada of other Chinese vessels, including Chinese frigates and a helicopter flying overhead.
Since Beijing installed the rig on 2 May this maritime frontline near the Paracel Islands has been the site of a fierce standoff between China and Vietnam over vast fishery, oil and gas reserves.
Some of the heat has been taken out since China’s National Petroleum Corp moved the rig back into Chinese territory late on Tuesday night, a month earlier than planned.
The company’s website declared: “The mission has been completed smoothly, as planned, and oil and gas has been discovered.” The data will now be analysed, it added, and “a decision made on the next step”.
But while the news has been welcomed by Hanoi – a major trading partner of Beijing – few expect the removal of the rig to be the end of the matter.
The crisis in the South China Sea has seen bilateral relations between the two nations tumble to their lowest point since 1979. Anti-China riots in Vietnam in May left four dead and 100 injured after protesters set fire to industrial factories in various parts of the country, forcing thousands of Chinese to flee the country, while a foreign policy meeting in June failed to reach any consensus, with Beijing refusing to “swallow the bitter fruits that undermine our sovereignty” and Hanoi promising to “defend our land and sea” .
Things worsened this month when a Chinese vessel damaged a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracels and Chinese crewmen arrested six Vietnamese fishermen for allegedly illegally fishing in Chinese waters.
The once-friendly neighbours have since been engaged in a strategic game of cat-and-mouse in the disputed sea, resulting in Hanoi regularly issuing warnings to Beijing to remove the rig, only to have Beijing regularly chase away Hanoi’s vessels.
Vietnam’s fishing and maritime surveillance vessels are dwarfed in size and quantity by China’s missile destroyers, frigates, patrol boats, oil tankers, fishing boats and surveying aircraft – all seen as potent defences for the rig. On Tuesday, when the Guardian accompanied the Vietnam Coast Guard on a mission near the area, Vietnam counted 50 of its vessels in the region compared with China’s 106.
Both China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over this part of the South China Sea – a vast, resource-rich maritime boundary to which Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also lay full or partial claim – and both countries have dredged up historical maps and ancient trade routes as evidence for their ownership. China, for example, lays claim to 90% of the area.
For months, officials and observers have been unable to rule out the possibility that the maritime conflict could escalate.
“It is impossible to predict whether this will turn into a war or not,” Lt Col Dang Hong Quan of the Vietnam Coast Guard said earlier this week. “We are looking for the most peaceful way to resolve the crisis. We don’t want losses, we don’t want suffering.”
Fishermen in the region cited the rig’s withdrawal as a victory for Vietnam, as it indicated they can finally go back to business without interference. “China installed the oil rig so that it would block our access to the ocean,” says Le Van Ha, a tuna fisherman who was on board the DNA-90152 when it was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel on 26 May. “We couldn’t get past it because of all the Chinese vessels around it, which would just chase us back to shore.”
China’s removal of the oil rig was also welcomed by Washington, which last week accused Beijing of “gluttonous, naked aggression” in the South China Sea, and had encouraged all parties to engage in a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“We support relevant parties adopting a voluntary freeze on provocative, unilateral actions,” the state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters Wednesday.
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