Events are unfolding quickly in Southeast Asia. A military coup has just occurred in Thailand and China has provocatively placed an oil drilling rig in the South China Sea, just off the coast of Viet Nam. The rig is well within Viet Nam’s economic exclusion zone and is an area that Vietnamese fishermen have used for centuries.
Once word got out what China had done, spontaneous protests broke out in Viet Nam, some turning violent. Things have calmed down, for the moment. The government moved quickly to squash the protests, apprehend the protest leaders, assuage foreign investors and reimburse companies for damages. Vietnamese leaders have opted for a strategy of peaceful resolution, utilizing whatever legal means in the international arena they can while trying to reassure investors and tourists that it’s all ‘business as usual.’
China, meanwhile, has sent in dozens more ships to protect the oil rig and harass Vietnamese boats which come too close. Where this is all leading is anyone’s guess. One thing though is for sure: if Viet Nam is unable to dislodge the oil rig and China continues drilling, the government’s credibility will take a serious blow and China will gain the confidence to do similar actions around Southeast Asia. Today Viet Nam’s leaders met with their Filipino counterparts to brainstorm responses to China’s aggressiveness. Soon, Chinese ships will show up on the Philippines’ coast doing the same thing.
Area of the ‘South China Sea’ which China claims:
Cooler heads are prevailing at the moment, but this is an extremely worrisome move by China’s leaders. They risk alienating not only Viet Nam but also all of their Southeast Asian neighbors. Do they really need the oil, or is this more of a symbolic move, a clear signal to their neighbors and the U.S.A. that the South China Sea is their ‘sphere of influence?’
As Obama moves forward with his ‘Asian Pivot’ in an aggressive attempt to blunt China’s influence and , indeed , to ultimately encircle that huge country, we can expect more counter-moves such as this one. Meanwhile , smaller countries on the periphery, such as Viet Nam will be caught in the middle.