Alarming Escalation in the South China Sea: China Threatens Force if Vietnam Continues Oil Exploration in Spratlys

A new pattern of Chinese bellicosity?

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On July 15, well-informed sources in Hanoi privately reported that Vietnam directed a subsidiary of Spain’s Repsol to suspend oil drilling in block 136-03 in the South China Sea. Nine days later a report by the BBC’s Bill Hayton finally confirmed this.

According to the BBC, Vietnam informed Repsol executives last week that “China had threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the drilling did not stop.” Vietnamese government officials directed Repsol to leave the area.

While there has been some dispute among observers about the commercial viability of block 136-03, the BBC reported that Repsol confirmed the discovery of a major gas field only a few days ago.

For the past two and a half years Vietnam has moved cautiously in its oil exploration activities in the South China Sea following the HD 981 crisis in mid-2014. Early this year there was a marked change. Vietnam signed its largest gas exploration contract with ExxonMobil to develop the Blue Whale project and Vietnam lifted restrictions on exploration in block 136-03.

The ExxonMobil deal was given much publicity, while the go ahead to Repsol was kept under wraps.

Vietnam’s actions aroused China’s ire. General Fan Changlong, deputy chair of the Central Military Commission, visited Madrid in June and raised Repsol’s drilling activities according to private reports. Then General Fan flew to Hanoi to discuss plans for the fourth friendly border exchange activities. In his meeting with Vietnam’s top leadership General Fan requested a halt to oil and gas exploration. He stated both sides should “abide by the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and the two parties.”

Vietnam’s leaders reportedly pushed back and defended Vietnam’s right to sovereign jurisdiction in their Exclusive Economic Zone. This angered General Fan, who cancelled China’s participation in the border exchange activities and abruptly left the country.

The BBC report that China threatened to attack Vietnamese-occupied features in the South China Sea if the drilling did not stop is an alarming escalation of Chinese assertiveness and forms part of an emerging pattern of increased Chinese bellicosity. (Click to Site)

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