In just over a month, Vietnamese and Chinese crews on the South China Sea have gone from toasting one another to clashing with water cannons, fueling growing animosity between the two nations. On Sunday, thousands of Vietnamese protestors living in Europe and the U.S. took to the streets to protest what they see as a violation of their sovereignty. Here’s why you should be paying attention to the situation:
1. This latest flare-up has already affected thousands of people.
According to Vietnam News, a Vietnamese patrol discovered a Chinese oil rig installed near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 1, located 140 miles off the Vietnamese coast. While Vietnam claims that China installed the rig illegally, China argues that the Paracels fall within their jurisdiction and that the rig, which cost $1 billion to install, is there to stay.
Frustration over the rig led to deadly rioting in Ho Chi Minh City last week, in which crowds torched a Taiwanese-owned factory and attacked Chinese workers. In response, more than 3,000 Chinese fled Vietnam last week, and over 1,000 more were evacuated on ships dispatched by the Chinese government Monday morning.
2. China’s neighbors consider the oil rig a threat to regional stability.
Tension between China and its neighbors is on the rise despite Chinese efforts to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asian nations last year. In October, Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited Vietnam to foster greater “political trust” through opening a cross-border economic cooperation zone. President Xi Jinping also remarked, “the Asia-Pacific is a big family and China is a member of this family.”
But the oil rig’s deployment appears to have undone any good will that China’s leadership had built up. “China’s illegal placement of the oil rig seriously threatens peace, stability, maritime safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea,” Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung said on Monday during a visit to the Philippines. “The two sides are determined to oppose China’s violations and called on the international community to condemn China’s actions.”
Recently the Philippines has contested expansion of Chinese authority over the South China Sea at the United Nations, and signed a defense pact increasing U.S. military presence in the island nation. At an annual summit on May 10, Southeast Asian united to condemn China’s recent actions in the South China Sea.
Vietnam is not alone in having territorial disputes with China. Japan and China have long argued over the Senaku Islands, a chain of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Japan recently announced plans to set up military bases and dispatch 350 troops to the area surrounding the disputed territory. The Philippines has also raised concerns that China is attempting to construct an air strip on the Spratly Islands, which both nations claim. China’s most recent dispute arose over its decision to include Natuna waters, a zone claimed by Indonesia, in its territorial map.
3. The United States cares deeply about how the situation is resolved.
Several Southeast Asian leaders have called on America to take action, hoping that Obama’s promise of a “pivot” towards Asia will balance against incremental expansion of Chinese power. While Secretary of State John Kerry stated the U.S. was “deeply concerned” over China’s “provocative” and “aggressive” move to install the rig, Washington is hesitant to risk further straining relations with its second largest trading partner, already damaged by recent allegations of spying.
An anonymous Chinese oil official confirmed that installment of the rig was politically, rather than economically, motivated, stating, “this reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the U.S. strategy on Asia.” Some observers argue that China’s installation of the rig, which occurred just two weeks after Obama toured Southeast Asia, was intended as a symbol of defiance against American authority over the Pacific.
While an American official warned, “China has learned the wrong lessons from Russia and Ukraine and has decided that unilateral assertion is the way to advance China’s interests,” China is proving increasingly willing to challenge American actions on similar grounds. Chinese government spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Secretary of State Kerry to look at the South China Sea conflict “objectively and fairly” and “act and speak cautiously.”
The potential crisis between two important American trading partners also comes right as the United States and China are in the midst of a separate diplomatic spat. In a response to recent spying allegations released Tuesday, the Chinese government accused the U.S. of lacking sincerity in solving espionage issues, alleging that America engages in the same cyber theft and espionage that it condemns.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.