Green light for Blue Whale ?

China has been flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea to discourage challenges from Vietnam and its neighbours. Photo courtesy Xinhua/AP

Vietnam looks set to risk another confrontation with China by giving the go ahead for a big gas exploration project off its central coast.

State media reported that the work led by the US energy giant, Exxon Mobil, could start in November, in an area known as the “Blue Whale” field to the east of Danang.

The block falls within Vietnam’s EEZ as recognised by the UN convention, however part of the zone is disputed by China which controls the disputed Paracel Islands further offshore. Beijing also claims historic rights to much of the South China Sea within its hotly contested “nine-dash-line”.

Vietnam backed down when threatened by China in June over gas exploration work further south in an area that also fell inside its EEZ.

The prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, told a visiting Exxon Mobil representative on Tuesday that the Blue Whale project could get the green light at the APEC summit to be held in Vietnam in November.

Threat of military action

Vietnam may be hoping for more robust American support for its position this time given the expected attendance of President Trump at the November summit.

Regional players will also be looking for signs of a personal interest in the project by the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who laid the groundwork for cooperation with Vietnam during his years as CEO of Exxon Mobil.

China was reported to have threatened Vietnam with military action against its outposts in the Spratly Islands in mid-June if it did not order the Spanish firm, Repsol, to abandon drilling in Block 136-03 southeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

Hanoi’s capitulation was seen as a significant victory for China’s brand of coercive diplomacy.

The Global Times, an affiliate of China’s People’s Daily, ran on editorial this week congratulating Vietnam on what it portrayed as a decision to cooperate with China in the South China Sea.

“Many Westerners are eager to see Vietnam playing a leading role in resisting China in the South China Sea,” stated the article.

“But Vietnam is smarter. Despite disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam is fully aware of the significance of managing the divergences…..The peaceful solution to the gas-drilling issue reflects the maturity of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship.”

The editorial said that previous attempts by Southeast Asian countries to confront China had proved futile and that Vietnam knew its interests lay in close cooperation with Beijing.

The article may sound like wishful thinking to some in Hanoi, but appears to reflect hope in Beijing that Vietnam is losing the will to defend its territorial claims and economic resources in the disputed waters.

China can be expected to continue using the carrot and stick to dissuade Vietnam from too defiant an approach.

Much will depend on the policies of President Trump, whose inconsistent approach to the region so far has left partners such as Vietnam confused and discouraged.