By whatever metric you choose, China’s recent oil-drilling adventure in the South China Sea was a disaster. No new oil will reach Chinese consumers, no new maritime territory has been gained and regional advantage has been handed to the United States. ASEAN solidarity has held firm and the positions of ‘pro-Beijing’ forces in crucial countries, particularly Vietnam, have been seriously weakened. China’s foreign-policy making has proven to be incompetent. How did it all go so wrong?
We can’t know what the Chinese leadership hoped to achieve when it approved the deployment of the country’s largest oil rig and a small armada of protecting vessels into waters also claimed by Vietnam. It seems unlikely that the operation was simply an attempt to find oil. There are many better places to go prospecting. On March 19, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) announced it had discovered a mid-sized gas field in uncontested waters closer to Hainan Island. Exploitation of that field was delayed while the Paracels adventure unfolded farther south.