The deputy director-general of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs sits in front of a map showing a disputed zone in the South China Sea during a press conference in Beijing, China on May 8.
Vietnamese vessels confronted Chinese ships in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam on Wednesday just days after Vietnamese officials said Beijing's ships slammed into their own in a show of force.
Officials in Vietnam also reportedly said the Chinese fired water cannons at Vietnamese sea patrol ships, injuring several sailors. Though Beijing has not confirmed the incident, it is the latest in a string of minor clashes between China and other nearby nations that illustrate the elevated tension in the South China Sea. That tension stems from nations near to China trying to contain Beijing's territorial claims that have become more aggressive in recent years.
The latest skirmish started when Chinese workers with the company oil company Cnooc parked an oil rig 120 miles off the coast of Vietnam in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China, according to the New York Times, prompting Vietnamese citizens to call for a naval response. But at least one of the two Vietnamese Sea Guards that showed up was allegedly rammed by a Chinese ship as soon as they got close to the oil rig. Chinese vessels then enforced a 3-mile protective ring around the rig by blasting water cannons at the Vietnamese ships. The New York Times has a video of the incident.
The waters everyone is fighting over
China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and even Taiwan are all involved in disputes with each other involving control of international waters. That's not new. What is relatively new is China's ability to impose its version of the map on surrounding nations.
The Philippines are in the process of suing China after Beijing took control of tiny islands between the two nations that both of them claim. China's also involved in a tense dispute with Japan over islands between those two nations in the East China Sea.
All this plays into a Chinese pattern of slowly escalating various territorial disputes according to Chris Johnson, who holds the Freeman Chair for China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank. He told Mashablethat China used to only send unarmed vessels to patrol what it believes are its borders, but now it has begun to extract resources in disputed territory and it used naval ships to escort the oil rig near Vietnam. Though Beijing didn't use its navy to ram the Vietnamese ships, China's more powerful vessels weren't far away.
The U.S. State Department called China's move a detriment to peace in the region, but Chinese officials quickly dismissed the U.S., saying the nation had no right to stick its nose in China's affairs.
Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institute, told Mashable that China's attempt to drill for oil in disputed territory so soon after President Barack Obama visited the region may be an attempt to remind its neighbors of China's presence in the area, but he cautioned that it's unclear how much the action was directed by Beijing and how much was done by the oil company.
But no matter who directed it, he and Johnson called it a move that is sure to increase tension in the whole region. Bush added that China's tactics in laying a more aggressive claim to international waters are hard to deal with for nations such as the U.S. that are located outside the disputed zones.
“It’s not the kind of situation where you can draw red lines," Bush said, because China does lay claim to the territory where it's operating. "It’s not a situation where anybody is totally in the right and China is totally in the wrong."
That's a big reason why the pattern is likely to continue, and why the Chinese oil rig probably won't head home anytime soon.
"I don't see the Chinese backing down here," Johnson said.