The friction between China and Vietnam over the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 (in Vietnamese: Hải Dương-981) was a major point of South China Sea tension in 2014. The stakes were not so big that that the parties resorted to military action, but this episode was an important sign that Hanoi does not intend to swallow the bitter fruit of China’s laying its oil rig into Vietnamese claimed EEZ. Beijing, of course, considers that its oil drilling took place legally in the adjacent waters of Woody Island, a one of the Paracel Islands, over which China maintains de facto control despite claims by other states. Both sides seem quite intractable in insisting on the legitimacy of their claims.

The worse part of oil rig 981 friction is that Chinese and Vietnamese risked violence to advanced their competing claims. Beijing mobilized dozens of its official boats and even warships to escort the oil rig. Hanoi dispatched hundreds of its coast guard ships and fishing boats to force their way into the area near the oil rig. Beijing forcefully uses its escorting ships to intercept Vietnamese vessels. Chinese sources reveal that more than 300 instances of ramming and bumping happened at sea. There is no doubt that the friction could have rapidly escalated into a military clash if the Vietnamese had responded by sending naval ships to the area. Since the public standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, it was one more instance of paramilitary confrontation in the South China Sea.

Looking to 2015, it is likely that China will move an oil rig back to disputed water area. Certainly Vietnam will harass China’s oil rig operations as expected. That sort of tit-for-tat contestation will not diminish unless Beijing and Hanoi can make a political deal to mutually accommodate oil drilling in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, such an agreement seems unlikely at present.

About Zhu Feng

Dr. Zhu Feng is Executive Director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. He is also professor of international relations there. Dr. Zhu Feng used to be a professor at School of International Studies of Peking University and Vice President of Institute of International & Strategic Studies of PKU. He moved onto Nanjing University to head this new institution from August of 2014.