The who, what, where, when and how of China’s HD-981 oil rig foray into Vietnamese waters have been addressed comprehensively, both by commentators here at The Diplomat and elsewhere. The enduring question, as with many of China’s provocative actions in the Asia-Pacific, remains why? The opacity of China’s internal decision-making processes makes it rather difficult to conclusively answer that question, but a good amount of evidence suggests that the oil rig crisis with Vietnam was manufactured to test the mettle of ASEAN states and the United States. It gives Beijing an opportunity to gauge the international response to China asserting its maritime territorial claims.
As Carl Thayer points out on this blog and M. Taylor Fravel said in an interview with The New York Times, the China National Offshore Oil Company’s decision to move oil rig HD-981 was a premeditated move of territorial assertion. CNOOC may be a state-owned enterprise but the decision to move this $1 billion asset into an area with questionable hydrocarbon reserves while also inciting a diplomatic crisis speaks to the planned, political nature of this move. The fact that approximately 80 PLAN and Chinese coast guard ships accompanied the rig reinforces the notion that China was making a strategic push to assert its territorial claims in the region.
The question of why China chose to escalate with Vietnam specifically is perhaps slightly easier to answer. Several analysts have already noted that China caught the world off-guard by choosing to escalate its territorial dispute with Vietnam given that relations between the two countries were improving as recently as fall 2013. Additionally, a certain degree of camaraderie exists between the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For China to suddenly risk a relatively stable bilateral relationship through an underlying rivalry seemed brazen and irresponsible.