Vietnam shaken by China threat

Vietnam and China last risked conflict in 2014 when China began drilling in disputed waters off the central Vietnamese coast. Photo courtesy AFP.

Vietnam appears to have backed down following a threat of military action by China, in a dramatic escalation of their dispute over energy resources in the South China Sea.

Vietnam ordered an abrupt halt to drilling off its south-east coast, according to sources in Hanoi and the local oil industry reported by the BBC.

Vietnam was reported to have told the Spanish owned drilling company, Repsol, that China had threatened to attack Vietnamese outposts in the Spratly islands if the work did not stop.

China had already expressed its anger at Vietnam’s resumption of oil and gas exploration, cutting short the visit last month of a top general to Hanoi and cancelling border talks.

Beijing believes that Vietnam broke a mutual agreement not to drill in disputed waters, by giving the go ahead for oil and gas exploration to Talisman-Vietnam, a subsidiary of Repsol.

Threatened war

Work began in a zone known by Vietnam as block 136 south-east of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the Spratly chain, an area considered by Vietnam to be within its exclusive economic zone.

The threat of military strikes by China will send shock-waves through South-east Asia and beyond, as it underlines the ferocity with which China is prepared to enforce its claims in the South China Sea.

“(This) is an alarming escalation of Chinese assertiveness and forms part of an emerging pattern of increased Chinese bellicosity,” said regional security expert, Carl Thayer, in an article in the Diplomat.

President Duterte of the Philippines said earlier this year that President Xi Jinping of China had threatened war if Manila went ahead with its plans to drill in disputed waters.

Acute vulnerability

Vietnam’s decision to back down, if confirmed, marks an abrupt reversal after months of patient diplomacy to bolster its position in the South China Sea and signs of growing confidence in its defiance of Chinese expansionism.

Hanoi has sought to maintain close economic and ideological ties with Beijing, while at the same time showing fortitude over its territorial claims.

The direct threat of military action from Beijing exposes Vietnam’s acute vulnerability should it overstep red lines set by China.

The communist authorities in Hanoi will also be concerned about negative reaction at home should news of the confrontation spread.

Government critics are quick to accuse the Communist leadership of selling out national sovereignty for the sake of ties with Beijing.