China moves oil rig deployed near island claimed by Vietnam
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — China has moved a deep-water oil rig that spurred a months-long standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese ships in the South China Sea, officials from both countries confirmed Wednesday.
After China deployed the $1 billion oil rig in early May, Chinese patrol vessels fired water cannons at Vietnamese ships, with each side accusing the other of ramming their vessels over a period of several weeks.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials spoke out against China throughout the standoff for its attempts to solve sovereignty disputes through coercion.
Although there were earlier indications that the rig would move in mid-August, China foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Wednesday that the rig completed its task as scheduled.
Hong defended China’s actions in deploying dozens of patrol and coast guard craft against Vietnam’s smaller fleet.
“The Chinese side firmly opposes Vietnam’s unjustified disruptions against Chinese company’s operation and has taken necessary measures to guarantee the security of the operation,” he said Wednesday, according to an official transcript.
Although no shots were ever fired, video shot by Vietnamese journalists and posted online shows the ships taking considerable damage. One Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk during the skirmishes.
Ha Le, deputy director of Vietnam’s fisheries resources surveillance department, said China began removing the rig and escorting vessels Tuesday night, according to The Associated Press.
By 8 a.m. Wednesday, it was 40 nautical miles northwest of its original location and continuing to move toward China’s Hainan Island.
“We don’t know what will China do next following the removal of the Haiyang Shiyou oil rig 981,” Le told the AP. “We will monitor the situation in the East Sea closely and be ready with other law enforcement agencies to defend our sovereignty,” referring to the South China Sea.
Le said 30 vessels from Vietnam’s coast guard and fisheries patrol forces that were sent to try to force the Chinese oil rig away will return to port to avoid the incoming Rammasun typhoon.
China claims the Paracel Islands based on what it views as historical use and discovery. On July 3, Vietnam sent United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a position paper outlining the legal basis for its claim to the islands.
China took control of the islands in 1974 after defeating a South Vietnamese naval force. It claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, claims that several of its neighbors say do not conform to international law.
The conflict with China led to popular protests in Vietnam and has affected public opinion, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week.
The poll revealed that 74 percent of Vietnamese view China as their greatest threat. Meanwhile, 30 percent said the U.S. will be their most dependable ally in the future, more than any other country selected.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that draft legislation on ending the U.S. ban on arms sales to Vietnam is circulating in Congress. The Obama administration could conceivably end the ban without Congress, since it is tied to an executive order.
Ted Osius, the nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told Congress during a June confirmation hearing that it may be time to explore lifting the ban if Vietnam continues to make progress on human rights issues.