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Page added on July 2, 2012
It’s one thing to read of the disputed claims in the South China Sea involving China and every other country that lines the edges of this Asiatic body of water, and it’s another thing entirely to see a map that starkly demonstrates just how boldly and aggressively China is pushing its claims.
Reading about the tussle is an academic exercise — a mental processing and weighing of this-country-said, that-country-said. To see a map where China is claiming sovereignty over seas that are less than 100 miles offshore Vietnam — as it did when it offered nine exploration blocks in the South China Sea on June 23 — and around 350 miles from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory on Hainan Island is simply astonishing.
The same could be said of any map illustrating the waters claimed nearly right up the coastlines of other countries as outlined by China’s so-called nine-dashed line, which curves inside of 100 miles of the shores of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Last week’s trouble — and probably this week’s, too — all started when Vietnam passed legislation on June 21 aimed at solidifying its national claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Maritime law is a more murky here since both groupings of islands are out in a watery no-man’s land.
But China has been trying to firm up its own claims to these and other South China Sea island chains, and the move by Vietnam could be seen as nothing other than an effrontery that had to be slapped down hard.
And what a slap.
Two days later China opened bidding on nine exploration blocks that fall almost entirely within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusion zone offshore the eastern coast of Vietnam and overlay blocks that had previously been awarded to PetroVietnam’s own exploration and production unit, PVEP, as well as Russia’s Gazprom, India’s ONGC Videsh, Canada’s Talisman and the US’ ExxonMobil.
It’s as if China was demonstrating just how far it was ready to go if Vietnam made any other efforts to further its claims — and may have left the smaller nation feeling it had brought a knife to a gunfight.
Certainly Vietnam hasn’t backed down, not diplomatically or in the local press, and there were uncharacteristic protests in the streets over the weekend. But the country that has already fought one brief, bitter war with China can hardly feel comfortable about how things are going.
The nine areas that China has said are its own to lease out to any comers don’t hold any hydrocarbon discoveries or any oil or gas output, so at least the fight over must-have natural resources for both China and Vietnam is still largely theoretical.
That may or may not temper the stand-off between these David and Goliath contenders, but with China so ready to overstep boundaries and push limits, solving the issue of ownership in the South China Sea and over its supposed vast resources of oil and gas have this month become a lot more difficult.