YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — China is now drilling for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam in the latest episode of disputes over territory in the South China Sea — a region that deeply concerns U.S. strategists focused on preserving freedom of navigation.
Vietnam foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said the Chinese deep water drilling rig was operating about 150 miles from Vietnam’s coast, in an area “undeniably within Viet Nam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”
“Viet Nam resolutely protests any activity conducted by foreign countries in its waters without permission,” Binh said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website. “Such an activity is illegal and void.”
International maritime law generally considers waters within 200 nautical miles (230 statute miles) of a country’s borders to be part of its exclusive economic zone.
The drilling site is about 225 miles from China’s Hainan Island, which is connected by a bridge to the Chinese mainland. However, the site is about 30 miles from the disputed Paracel Islands, which China declared part of the prefectural-level city of Sansha in 2012.
The islands and reefs themselves are of little value, but the surrounding waters are thought to contain vast oil and natural gas resources.
China claims the islands — along with about 90 percent of the South China Sea — based largely on what it deems historical discovery. Its claims clash with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. Those nations base their claims mostly on international law, though Binh noted in his statement that Vietnam has “sufficient historical evidence and legal bases” to claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.
When asked about Vietnam's protest, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the rig was operating “completely within the waters of China's Paracel Islands,” according to Reuters. Hua declined to elaborate.
The Maritime Safety Administration of China announced May 3 on its website that all ships should stay one mile away from the rig, called the Haiyang Shiyou 981.
China’s move comes just after President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia. All except South Korea have territorial disputes with China.
During a news conference in Manila, Obama noted that the United States doesn’t “go around sending ships and threatening folks” when it has territorial disputes, a pointed reference to China’s actions.
In recent years, China has held multiple maritime standoffs with Vietnamese and Philippine ships. Recently, Chinese ships tried to block the resupply of a rusting barge manned by a small Philippine garrison at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.
Obama also voiced support for Manila’s right to challenge Chinese claims in international court. The Philippines filed a 4,000 page brief at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on March 30, challenging a map that China uses to assert South China Sea control.
The U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations in areas to assert international rights of sea passage in areas in regions with “unlawful maritime sovereignty claims,” according to the State Department. A report to Congress stated that the Navy carried out such operations on China and 10 other nations in fiscal year 2013, including allies like the Philippines.