China defends oil rig in troubled waters

Move seen as attempt to sway worsening global opinion

CHINA has put up its strongest defence to date over its May 2 placement of an oil rig in disputed waters, in an attempt to shore up international opinion and pre-empt a possible legal move by Vietnam.

China's foreign ministry on Sunday night issued a statement outlining its territorial sovereignty over the Paracel islands based on historical grounds such as naval expeditions during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126AD) and modern-day evidence such as Vietnamese maps describing the isles with Chinese names.

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The ministry also accused Vietnam of "illegally and forcefully disrupting the oil rig operation" by sending frogmen to the area, dropping obstacles such as fishing nets and ramming the Chinese vessels on escort and security missions there 1,416 times.

"While illegally and forcefully disrupting the normal operation of the Chinese company on the sea, Vietnam also condoned anti-China demonstrations at home," the ministry said, citing anti-China riots in Vietnam last month that killed four Chinese nationals and injured some 300 others.

In their worst rift since a 1979 border war, Beijing has suspended some bilateral exchanges with Hanoi and demanded compensation, while Vietnam has said that it is considering legal action against China at an international tribunal, like what the Philippines has done in response to China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Analysts say the statement contains largely the same arguments made by the ministry at its media briefings since China placed its largest oil rig in Paracel's waters, but is lengthier. The move was seen as a test of the United States' resolve in backing its allies such as the Philippines and Japan in their territorial spats with China.

The latest development is thus viewed mostly as an attempt to sway worsening global opinion with regard to China, as seen at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel chided China for disrupting regional stability through actions such as the oil rig move.

Sino-Asean expert Li Jinming of Xiamen University told The Straits Times that the foreign ministry wants to show that China has exercised maximum restraint despite Vietnamese provocation.

Regional security expert Carl Thayer said the statement is an example of China's "doctrine of information warfare".

"China's information warfare strategy incorporates 'legal warfare' that is the use of Chinese domestic law and China's own interpretation of international law to argue its case for 'indisputable sovereignty'," he told The Straits Times.

China's move could also be a response to Vietnam's charges last Friday that Chinese vessels have damaged 24 coast guard and fisheries surveillance force vessels and 12 fishing boats. Both sides have given contrasting accounts of the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel on May 26.

In its statement, China's Foreign Ministry also reproduced parts of Vietnamese textbooks that in 1974 described the isles as Chinese territory, to show how Hanoi had recognised Chinese ownership of the Paracels, now also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

However, China's historical claims in the South China Sea via a nine-dash line have been seen as incongruous with the prevailing international norm of defining maritime territories based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Indonesian diplomat Arif Havas Oegroseno, who presided over a 2010 meeting of Unclos member-states, said the resolution of a maritime border dispute between Indonesia and the Philippines last month should be a lesson for South China Sea claimant-states.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying yesterday also denounced Vietnam and the Philippines for holding an event on a disputed island in the South China Sea where troops from both sides gathered to play soccer and volleyball as well as to drink beer.

She called the gathering on South-west Cay in the Spratly archipelago "a clumsy farce" and demanded that both countries stop causing trouble.

"We demand that Vietnam and the Philippines stop any behaviour that picks quarrels and causes trouble... and not do anything to complicate or magnify the dispute," she said at a daily briefing.