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Vietnam leery as China’s infamous oil rig headed for Indian Ocean

Vietnamese agencies concerned are closely watching the path of a giant oil rig that bedeviled Sino-Vietnamese relations last year after the China Central Television said it is setting off to the Indian Ocean for “overseas assignment”.

According to local authorities of Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig has been headed to Singapore since January 1. The rig is moving at around four nautical miles per hour in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea. The Vietnamese Directorate of Fisheries said the rig has been escorted by a small fleet of vessels. The Vietnamese marine police force said they have been kept a close tab on the rig to “brace for possible bad developments”.

Carl Thayer, a maritime expert, said from what he was informed the rig is being taken to Myanmar to engage in oil exploration activities. It may have passed through Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but this is totally legal under international law, he said.

“All countries have the right to transit through the EEZ of coastal states. It is perfectly legal for China to tow the rig through Vietnam’s EEZ in order to go to Myanmar,” Thayer told Thanh Nien News.

“If China entered Vietnam’s EEZ and parked the [rig] to begin commercial operations that would be another matter, a violation of Vietnam’s sovereign jurisdiction,” he said.

On May 2 of last year China deployed the rig in Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf in the East Sea. It sent Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging to their lowest point in decades and triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels of both countries at sea.

But China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties, exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.

Tensions appeared to flare up again last month. In a position paper on December 7, China outlined its arguments against the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to take up the case filed by the Philippines that could have implications for China's claims over the East Sea, Reuters reported.

On December 11, Vietnam condemned the Chinese position paper, reiterating that it has incontestable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) island chains.

Vietnam also said then that it had filed its own position paper asking that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague take its legal interests and rights into consideration when weighing the evidence in the Philippines case against China in the East Sea.

China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dash line -- a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square kilometer East Sea.

Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international experts. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

After withdrawing the oil rig last July, China has continued to crank up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly island chain in the East Sea. Beijing said in August it planned to build lighthouses on five islets, two of them the in Paracels, also in the East Sea.

“The reality is China has neither made a single concession nor has it backed down from its claim to the East Sea,” said Zachary Abuza, a US-based analyst.

“It has refused to stop all the things that reinforce its sovereign claims. Indeed, it has sped up their development,” Abuza said

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