China's first deep water oil rig in the South China Sea will move to the second phase of oil drilling and exploration Tuesday, a day after a Vietnamese fishing boat capsized during a face-off with Chinese vessels in nearby waters.
Geological data was collected during the first phase which finished Tuesday, said China Oilfield Services Limited affiliated to China National Offshore Oil Corporation, which manages the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling platform. The drilling is expected to end mid-August.
According a company statement, the waters explored in the first phase are 17 nautical miles from Zhongjian Island, completely within China's territorial waters, while they are as far as 130-150 nautical miles from Vietnam's coastline.
The Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) issued an alert Tuesday regarding the relocation of the drilling platform.
A geological engineer surnamed Zhang, who specializes in drilling projects, said based on the data released by MSA, the rig will move in a northeast direction from its current position to further explore potential sources of oil and natural gas.
The same day another alert was issued by the MSA, warning merchant vessels and fishing boats on the South China Sea of the danger of collision. This comes after a Vietnamese fishing boat capsized following a collision Monday with a fishing boat from Dongfang, South China's Hainan Province.
Vietnamese media reported that the Chinese boat rammed and sank the Vietnamese one. However, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told Tuesday's press conference that the Vietnamese boat forcibly intruded into the safety zone around the drilling platform and capsized after jostling against a Chinese fishing boat in the vicinity. All 10 crew members on board were pulled from the water.
"Chinese companies have carried out oil drilling operations offshore from the Xisha Islands for 10 years. The current operation was a normal offshore drilling task in undisputed waters near the Chinese coast, which was justified and legitimate," Qin said.
Xu Liping, a research fellow with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Global Times that some Vietnamese fishing boats have soldiers in disguise on board.
"We urge Vietnam to respect China's sovereignty … and immediately put an end to destructive activities, especially dangerous actions on the sea, in order to guarantee navigation safety and fishery order," said Qin.
Since the launch of drilling on May 2, there have been multiple confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the area of the drilling rig. In mid-May, riots broke out against Chinese people and companies which spread to other foreign-owned firms. At least two Chinese nationals were killed and over 100 were injured, after which thousands of Chinese nationals working in Vietnam were evacuated.
Wang Xiaopeng, an expert on maritime border studies at CASS, told the Global Times that China should be prepared mentally and physically for continuing harassment from Vietnam, which is likely to last even after August.
"Vietnam has tried to expand the disputes over the South China Sea by invoking the territory of the undisputed Xisha Islands and seeking 'legal action' on the issue. The Philippines has filed for international arbitration and the US is supporting Vietnam in seeking international arbitration in its row with China. One country after another may take China to arbitration in the future," Wang said.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has previously said his government was considering various "defense options" against China, including legal action.
President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines said in an interview with the Financial Times Monday that China's tactic of exploring for oil in disputed areas may be repeated in waters close to the coastline of the Philippines. He accused China of playing a "dangerous game of brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy" that could spiral out of control.
In Japan, which has a thorny maritime territorial dispute of its own with Beijing in the East China Sea, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga Tuesday said if the report of the Chinese vessel sinking the Vietnamese boat was true, it was an "extremely dangerous act," AFP reported.
Xu said Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have formed a clique to counter China. "Such a clique may be patched within a short time, but it won't last long," Xu noted.
"We must present our power, including military power, in the South China Sea as a deterrent to both Vietnam and the Philippines," Wang noted, while adding dialogue with Vietnam should also be strengthened.
In another case, one fisherman was killed and one disappeared when a Vietnamese boat was rammed by a "strange" vessel in an area to the north of the platform on Sunday, reported Reuters.
"We haven't had enough information to say where that strange boat came from. In this sensitive time, of course we think it's a Chinese boat," Pham Thi Huong, vice chairman of the Ly Son government, told Reuters.