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Vietnam accuses China of drilling for oil in disputed waters

A Chinese oil company has positioned a deepwater rig in an area of the South China Sea where tensions with Vietnam flared in 2014. China insists the area is under its control and not disputed. 

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    Haiyang Shiyou oil rig, pictured here in 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong in the South China Sea, is the first deep-water drilling rig developed in China.
    Jin Liangkuai/Xinhua via AP/File
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Vietnam has demanded China withdraw an oil rig from disputed waters between the two Asian neighbors in a possible repeat of a 2014 stand-off over deepwater exploration in the South China Sea.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement released on Tuesday that Vietnam has raised concerns with China over the movement of Haiyang Shiyou 981, the same rig that caused the 2014 dispute, into waters claimed by Vietnam. He pressed China to stop any drilling and to remove the rig from the area, a stretch of ocean between Central Vietnam and China's Hainan Island that has not been demarcated. 

China's Foreign Ministry insisted on Wednesday that the rig “is operating in Chinese-controlled waters that are completely undisputed.”

“We hope the Vietnamese side can view this calmly, meet China half way, and jointly work hard to appropriately handle relevant maritime issues,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a press briefing, according to Reuters.

While the incident has raised tensions between the Communist-ruled countries, both have remained relatively calm compared to how they reacted in 2014. That May, China deployed the rig about 120 nautical miles off Vietnam's coast, in what Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone. The incident sparked anti-Chinese demonstrations that spiraled into deadly riots in Vietnam and led to the worst breakdown in relations between the two countries in decades, reports the Associated Press.

China said the rig would be drilling in waters west of the Paracel Islands, which China has occupied since the 1970s despite Vietnamese claims of sovereignty. The rig is being positioned roughly 130 nautical miles off Vietnam's coast, according to China's Maritime Safety Administration. Its operator is a subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil Corp.  

Rich in oil and gas reserves, the South China Sea is home to a growing number of territorial disputes and flare-ups between China and its smaller neighbors. While China considers most of it to be under its jurisdiction, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have competing claims. Since 2013, China has attempted to expand its sphere of influence through a massive land reclamation effort.

Vietnam has bristled at this expansion. Earlier this month, it formally accused China of violating its sovereignty after Beijing landed a plane on one of China’s manmade island in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam has also asked China to investigate the recent ramming of a Vietnamese fishing vessel by a boat that the captain said was marked with Chinese characters, reports The New York Times. 

China is causing a “big and imminent threat to security” in Southeast Asia, Chito Santa Romana of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies in Manila told The Christian Science Monitor last year. “The rise of China’s economic power has given rise to its military power."

In response to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Vietnam has turned to the United States for assistance. In July, the chairman of Vietnam's Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, met with President Obama at the White House and said that his country planned to expand its military partnership with the US. The Pentagon said it would provide Vietnam with $18 million to purchase coast guard vessels.

The dispute over the Chinese oil rig comes as more than 1,500 Communist Party delegates gather in Hanoi for the start of a national congress that will select new leaders for the next five years. Analysts told the Times that the dispute was unlikely to affect those decisions, and that the party appeared uninterested in alienating China.

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