Cyber attacks and naval drills underline China threat

China’s control of the Paracel Islands is used to project its claim to waters off the Vietnamese coast. Photo courtesy Reuters.

China is reported to have stepped up cyber attacks on Vietnam and military exercises near disputed waters as it seeks to keep up pressure on its southern neighbour.

The foreign ministry in Hanoi expressed “deep concern” about the naval drills, held near the entrance to the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam’s north-central coast.

The area is close to Vietnam’s “Blue Whale” gas exploration project, which officials said should get the formal go ahead in November.

Sabre rattling over the project could escalate in the coming weeks if China insists on blocking Vietnam’s exploitation of natural resources in the South China Sea.

Vietnam caved in to Chinese threats in June over a gas project further south, cancelling a drilling contract with the Spanish form, Repsol.

However, the Blue Whale field is rather closer to the Vietnamese coastline than the southern project, which was on the edge of Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile EEZ. It remains unclear how China would justify its claim, although it could say the block lies within its hotly contested “nine-dash line”, its ill-defined claim to historic rights across the South China Sea, or claim a 200nm baseline from the nearby Paracel Islands, which it occupies.

Second round

Chinese cyber spies, meanwhile, are reported to be extending their attacks against government and commercial targets in Vietnam.

The cyber security company, FireEye, told the Reuters news agency that the attacks had been traced to a Chinese group that has been implicated in similar activity in the past.

President Tran Dai Quang highlighted the threat last week when he called for better protection against cyber threats. In the same article, he also demanded tighter restrictions on websites critical of the government.

The Blue Whale project, to be developed by the US company, Exxon Mobil, could boost Vietnam’s confidence as it steels itself to defy Chinese dominance in the South China Sea.

Vietnam suffered a major setback over the Repsol project, amid reports of a direct military threat from China.

But Hanoi may be counting on more explicit support from the United States in its efforts to develop the Blue Whale field.