HANOI – China on Wednesday was moving a massive oil rig away from waters claimed by Vietnam after announcing the end of operations, a development that should end a tense standoff between the nations in the South China Sea.
But in withdrawing the rig on its own terms, Beijing has demonstrated it will not be stopped from carrying out exploration activities in waters it considers its own — regardless of the regional or international criticism such actions provoke.
China deployed the rig in early May close to the Paracel Islands, triggering fury in Hanoi, which demanded Beijing withdraw it and sent patrol ships to try and disrupt the operations.
China insisted it had done nothing wrong, and accused Vietnam of illegally disrupting its activities.
Adding to tensions in the region, deadly riots targeting perceived and actual Chinese interests broke out in Vietnam, leaving several dead and exposing the level of nationalist sentiment in the country against its giant neighbor.
The deployment of the rig was widely seen as part of a strategy by China of gradually staking out its claims in the South China Sea, all or part of which are also claimed Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
In announcing the withdrawal of the rig, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was because the typhoon season was beginning and that its operations had been completed.
It said oil and gas has been discovered during the operation, but was assessing the data gathered before deciding its next move. It has always been unclear whether the Beijing deployed the rig for genuine exploration reasons or geopolitical ones. When it announced the deployment, Beijing said it would withdraw it on Aug. 15, also citing the typhoon season.
Ha Le, deputy director of Vietnam’s fisheries resources surveillance department, said China began removing the rig and escorting vessels Tuesday night, and by 8 a.m. Wednesday it was 40 nautical miles northwest of its original location and continuing to move toward Hainan island.
Le said 30 vessels from Vietnam’s coast guard and fisheries patrol forces that were sent to try to force the Chinese oil rig away will return to port to avoid the incoming Rammasun typhoon.
China’s unwillingness to move the rig exposed Vietnam’s lack of options when dealing with its giant neighbor. The workings of the Vietnamese government are shrouded in secrecy, but it has long been assumed that the Communist Party is split between a faction that favors a tough line against Beijing — and consequentially stronger ties with the United States and its allies in Asia — and those members who believe a compromise can be reached with their ideological allies to the north.
As a result of the rig placement, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said the country was preparing to file a legal challenge to China’s claims in an international tribunal, something that risks angering China. It remains to be seen whether Vietnam will go ahead with that now the rig has been withdrawn.
Former Vietnamese Ambassador to Beijing Nguyen Trong Vinh said China’s removal of the rig didn’t signal a change of attitude on behalf of the country.
“The removal of the oil rig from our continental shelf and exclusive economic zone is only temporary. Maybe they pulled out the oil rig ahead of the typhoon season. It does not mean that they have abandoned their resolve to take control of most of the East Sea,” he said, using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.