While Vietnamese and Chinese ministers were meeting in Hanoi, China’s Maritime Safety Administration has sent 4 more oil rigs into the South China Sea. This move has already caused another outbreak of anti-Chinese rallies in Vietnam and signals a worsening of the situation between these two countries.
At the same time, however, the Vietnamese ambassador to Russia offered priority access to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in exchange for support against Chinese territorialism. There had been speculation that the
Vietnamese government would offer the use of the facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to the United States Navy.
Russia has officially maintained a neutral stance in the conflict between the two countries, but this move may signal a change in the scope of what is still a regional conflict. If Russia throws its weight behind the Vietnamese claim, China will be forced to respond and may increase the number of potential adversaries it has in the area.
China also suffered another territorial check when the United States and Philippines signed 10-year pact allowing US aircraft, ships and troops to use military facilities in that country in late April. If Russia and Vietnam enter into an agreement, the South China Sea will be ringed by military bases controlled by countries who have no desire to see the territorial status quo change.
So, what will China’s response be? Or, are we already seeing it? By deploying the oil rigs now and getting them in place and set up before the US or Russia has a permanent presence in the area, China may be setting the limits of her own expansion.
Smaller countries can be bullied until they find allies, and that is what the countries surrounding the South China Sea are doing. Whether it is an increased presence by the United States in Japan and the Philippines or a permanent Russian presence in Vietnam, the presence of warships and aircraft of these nations should have a calming effect on the provocations that seem to be the order of the day today.
Reports have also indicated that China believes it can construct a new Chinese-built aircraft carrier battle group within three years, followed by an additional two in a similar time frame. This claim is little more than wishful thinking, fortunately. With no carrier tradition to draw on and even less experience with sustained operations, multiple Chinese carrier battle groups are a pipe dream.
However, China has a potent naval force that can operate close to its home bases and maintain a more intense cycle of deployments than any other country in the area with the exceptions of Japan and the United States. The addition of a Russian force operating from Vietnam is not something that the Chinese could possibly be looking forward to.
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