By David Brown
True to an annual rhythm enforced by the typhoon season, China last month pulled its deep-sea drilling rig from Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Analysts immediately began debating who “won” or “lost,” but in truth, the significance of the ten-week test of wills lies mainly in the lessons that Beijing, Hanoi, and the governments of other nations troubled by China’s drive for “immutable sovereignty” derive from it.
The pattern of Chinese aggression has become clear since Beijing tabled its sweeping claim, backed by a crude map, with the United Nations in 2009. Beijing has flexed its maritime muscle time and again since then, profiting from disarray and lingering disbelief in various capitals, including Washington. It is not that China has grown more devious; it is just that too many had bought into the notion that China would be, albeit with growing pains, a peacefully rising new superpower. It has taken time for the scales to fall from our eyes.
Confrontation off Vietnam’s coast captured the headlines, but also this year Chinese Coast Guard elements have harassed Philippine outposts, a naval squadron paid a flag-raising visit to James Shoal in Malaysia’s EEZ, and marine engineers have assiduously converted reefs and rocks into the infrastructure of regional domination.
For reasons that make little sense to western energy strategists but apparently resonate with China’s citizens, Beijing has whipped up anger over the growth of its neighbors’ oil and gas industries. “About 20 million tons of oil and gas are extracted annually by Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia from the South China Sea. This is a loss of China’s oil and gas to foreign countries,” reported the populist tabloid Global Times. Chinese estimates of the hydrocarbons awaiting the arrival of its drilling rigs are typically about three times the estimates published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There should be little surprise that China targeted a section of the Phu Khanh basin 120 miles off the central coast of Vietnam this summer. It is one of several little-explored areas identified by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as likely to hold substantial hydrocarbon deposits. For several years, ExxonMobil has been exploring blocks nearer the coast in a joint venture with PetroVietnam, apparently with some success. Murphy Oil, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, and Russia’s Gazprom also have been granted concessions in the area by the Vietnamese government.
If the Chinese rig found any trace of hydrocarbons, it was nothing more than a lucky hit. Unless politically directed, oil companies never drill until extensive collection of seismic data and geological modeling gives evidence of substantial deposits – enough to merit the cost of around $100,000,000 per well.
The most promising area identified by USGS for seabed hydrocarbons, the Reed Bank, is a roughly 50 by 70 mile wide tablemount off Palawan Island in the Philippine EEZ, where Philex Petroleum has secured Manila’s permission to start drilling in 2016. That means seismic vessels under contract to Philex will be busy over the area in 2015, and likely be an irresistible target for Chinese intervention.
Since it is not a deep-water location, the Reed Bank would be suitable for the deployment of China’s jack-up drilling rigs as the pretext for a show of force. It is not difficult to imagine a rerun of the confrontation with Vietnam this summer unfolding in Philippine waters.
That is one scenario, probably one of many that Chinese tacticians are considering. If they catch everyone else flat-footed, Beijing will forge another link in a chain of events intended to create de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea. But the chain can be broken if the United States leads a preemptive, cooperative counter to a Chinese show of force.
China has relied on its fast-growing armada of paramilitary vessels to stake its claim in the South China Sea. It and the United States seem tacitly agreed not to confront warships with warships, a circumstance that thus far has given Beijing an advantage. An effective counterstroke would leverage the U.S. Coast Guard’s well-developed training relationships with the maritime police of friendly nations in Southeast Asia.
In the months ahead, the United States and Japan will transfer a couple of dozen cutters and patrol boats to Vietnam and the Philippines. Whatever China may attempt next spring and summer, there is good reason to organize extended multinational cooperation exercises in the waters between the Paracels and Spratlys. Only coast guard/maritime police elements should take part. For public consumption, these exercises can focus on hands-on training in search and rescue, interdiction of smugglers or pirates, defending against foreign incursions into territorial waters, etc. The United States and Japan should urge Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore also to join in these exercises.
Elements of the flotilla should remain at sea from March through July, ready to stymie another Chinese deployment simply by getting in the way. Such a concerted show of paramilitary strength would demonstrate that the littoral nations and their friends will no longer tolerate China’s salami-slicing tactics. There is a downside risk of deliberate collisions and the use of water cannons, tactics employed by China against Vietnam this summer. However, the more likely scenario is that Chinese vessels will choose to avoid confrontation on equal or near-equal terms, in effect resetting Chinese tactical assumptions and opening the way for more rational and mutually respectful outcomes.
Mr. David Brown is a freelance journalist and retired U.S. diplomat.