05/07/2014, 00.00
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Sino-Vietnamese tensions rising over drilling rig in disputed South China Sea

by Paul N. Hung

The Vietnamese government says it will respond to China's decision to operate a drilling rig in an area thought to be rich in natural gas. Washington calls China's move provocative and unhelpful. Chinese media rail against Hanoi, calling for appropriate countermeasures in case of attack.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) - Vietnam is planning a number of countermeasures against China, after the latter began building a drilling rig in the disputed South China Sea waters. The United States, which called China's move provocative and unhelpful, is boosting its alliance with the Philippines to stem Chinese imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities announced that they do not accept China's decision to build drilling platform HD-981 and deploy naval vessels in an area considered an integral part of Vietnam's continental shelf and within its exclusive economic relevance.

By contrast, Beijing appears determined to pursue its aggressive policy in the area, given the inability of other countries to take adequate countermeasures.

On 1 May, the Maritime Safety Administration of China (MSAC) deployed an exploration rig in an area claimed by Vietnam for its exclusive use, some 119 nautical miles from the coast, and will operate it from 2 May until 15 August. Vietnamese authorities fear instead it might remain there for far longer.

The drilling platform is 114 metres long, 90 metres wide and 136 metres high with a 90,000 tonne payload. It is able to operate at a depth of 3,000 metres, drilling oil wells at a depth of 12,000 meters.

The MSAC on Saturday announced that all vessels should keep one mile (1.6 km) away. on Monday, it expanded the prohibited area to a three-mile (4.8 km) radius.

The rig is located in lot 143, which has great potential in terms of natural gas, this according to PetroVietnam. 

Vietnam's government said it would not accept drilling rig HD-981, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh told Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi during a phone call.

Beijing's reaction was immediate. No nation has the right to interfere in China's maritime programs, it said. To drive the point home, Chinese state media began attacking Vietnam, saying that it should be taught a lesson should it stir tensions in the South China Sea.

In a vitriolic editorial in the government-owned Global Times, China warned Vietnam not to attack the platform or China would take appropriate countermeasures.

Vietnam is alone in its concerns. The Philippines too has been increasingly worried about Beijing's imperialism in the South China and East China seas.

The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

In recent months, China has used various political, economic and diplomatic means to hamper non-Chinese vessels from fishing or moving through the disputed waters.

For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line is both "illegal" and "irrational".

Anyone with a hegemonic sway over the region would have a strategic advantage, in terms of seabed (oil and gas) development, but also in trade since two thirds of the world's maritime trade transit through it.

Almost uninhabited, the area's islands are thought to hold extensive oil and natural gas reserves as well as other raw materials.

India, Australia and the United States are also parties to the dispute in various degrees.

In view of the conflicting interests and alliances that crisscross the Asia-Pacific region, the area is one of the hottest geopolitical spots in the world, one that could even trigger a new global war.

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