On January 20, Vietnam alleged that China had once again moved its Hai Duong 981 offshore oil rig into contested waters off its coast. When this happened previously, starting in May 2014, the oil platform had been accompanied by a flotilla of Chinese ships, including naval vessels, triggering a series of escalatory actions involving ramming incidents and confrontations between vessels at sea, anti-Chinese riots and violence within Vietnam and severely strained diplomatic relations. Vietnam alleges that the oil rig is in disputed waters and has demanded its removal, while China has asserted that the rig is in “completely uncontested waters under China’s jurisdiction.”
The precise position of the oil rig is unclear at the moment, but its location compared to the rig’s 2014 deployment would be telling with regard to China’s strategic intentions going forward. For example, if the rig is in yet more — or even equally — contentious parts of Vietnam’s continental shelf, it would indicate a trend in the wrong direction with regard to China’s determination to assert its claims in the region, regardless of the predictable costs of such a deployment (given what occurred last time). This is, however, probably not the case in order for Beijing to take advantage of some ambiguity.
Regardless of these important details, the continued use of offshore drilling rigs belonging to its state-owned enterprises (and operating under the guise of an ostensibly legal, commercial mandate) as tools in China’s strategy of expanding its regional territory should be taken note of as an indicator of how its other economic and financial assets are serving a similar purpose elsewhere in the world. In the South and East China Seas, however, this type of activity is likely to continue to be a “go to” strategy, as Beijing views its “hybrid” qualities to be useful — strategic gains can be made, while operating under the threshold of what the West considers to be militarily-relevant and requiring a response.