Thayer China-Vietnam Standoff: How Will It End | China | International Politics


Contributor Carlyle A. Thayer
Carlyle A. Thayer
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The
University of New South Wales at the Australian
Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Thayer is a
Southeast Asia regional specialist with special
expertise on Vietnam. He is the author of Southeast
Asia: Patterns of Security Cooperation (Canberra:
Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2012). He writes
a weekly column on Southeast Asian defense and
security affairs for the The Diplomat. He has held
senior appointments at the International Institute for
Strategic Studies in London; Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu;
School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; Center for
International Affairs, Ohio University; Australian Command and Staff College; and the
Center for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Australian Defence College. Thayer was
educated at Brown, holds an M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies from Yale and a PhD in
International Relations from The Australian National University. He was in Hanoi
when the Chinese oil rig crisis off Vietnam first broke out in May 2014.
University of New South Wales, Canberra
Contributions by Carlyle A. Thayer
Blog 05.09.14
The China-Vietnam Standoff: How
Will It End?
About Contact Donate Submissions © 2013 All Rights Reserved | A Project of the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society
Reporting & Opinion
My First Trip
Earthbound China
Out of School
Caixin Media
The NYRB China Archive
Sinica Podcast
Photo Gallery
Viral Videos

Wang Feng
Leslie T. Chang
Orville Schell
Michael Meyer

Reporting & Opinion Blog Library Multimedia Topics Contributors
Page 1 of 1 Carlyle A. Thayer | ChinaFile
The China-Vietnam
Standoff: How Will It End?
A ChinaFile Conversation
Friday, May 9, 2014
Carlyle A. Thayer

There are three possible interpretations for China’s decision to deploy the giant HD-
981 oil rig to Block 143 inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These
interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The first interpretation posits that the China National Offshore Oil Company
(CNOOC) decided to conduct commercial exploration activities in blocks it had put
out to tender in response to Vietnam’s adoption of the Law on the Sea in mid-2012.
As Susan Shirk notes CNOOC had already carried out seismic surveys and was likely
following up.
This interpretation is questionable given the size and composition of the fleet of 80
Chinese ships and vessels that accompanied the oil rig. As Shirk observes this was
“certainly not business as usual.” Indeed, diplomats in Beijing report that CNOOC
officials were ordered to deploy the rig despite their misgivings about the high daily
costs and the low evaluation of Block 143 as a source of oil and gas reserves.
The second interpretation argues that CNOOC’s actions were in response to the
operations by U.S. oil giant ExxonMobile in nearby blocks. This interpretation too
seems unlikely. ExxonMobile has been operating in Block 119 since 2011 despite
initial Chinese protests. It is unclear how the operations of a Chinese oil rig in Block
143 would deter ExxonMobile from operating elsewhere.
The third interpretation stresses the geo-political motivations behind China’s
actions. The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to
President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s
support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing.
Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that
the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric
and ability to act.
The third interpretation has plausibility. China can make its point and then withdraw
the oil rig once it has completed its mission in mid-August. But this interpretation
begs the question why Vietnam was the focus for this crisis and why China acted on
the eve of the summit meeting of the heads of government/state of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful