China blinks!

By Perry Diaz

Oil-rig-981Geopolitical games are like a game of chess, if a player blinks it shows weakness. And that’s exactly what happened last July 15, 2014 during the oil rig standoff between China and Vietnam in the disputed waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The following day, China withdrew her oil rig. Checkmate!

What happened was uncharacteristic of China who had never given up an inch of land she had taken by force or deception. In this case, China removed a $1-billion oil rig from within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by Vietnam but only 30 miles away from the Paracel Islands that China took by force from Vietnam in 1974.

While China has de facto possession of the Paracel Islands since then, Vietnam never gave up her right of ownership of the Paracels, which she had possessed since 1802 during the reign of Emperor Gia Long. But China maintains that she had owned the Paracel Islands since ancient times; however, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court had produced ancient maps that showed China’s southernmost territory was Hainan Island, which is 180 nautical miles northwest of the Paracels. China has yet to respond to Carpio’s exposé. Chinese cartographers are probably busy creating “ancient” maps that would dispute Carpio’s maps whose provenance is indisputably beyond question.

But knowing China’s territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region, there is little doubt that she would give up an inch of land without going to war, which begs the question: Why did China withdraw the oil rig away from disputed waters off Vietnam without a fight? The official explanation was made by China’s Foreign Ministry who said that the move was made one month ahead of the mid-August schedule because the typhoon season would begin soon.

Power struggle

Xi Jinping and the generals

Xi Jinping and the generals

Speculation is rife that the oil rig’s removal was caused by internal strife within China’s military establishment, which is divided between generals loyal to President Xi Jinping and the war hawks. Although President Xi Jinping holds the three most powerful positions – President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission – he has to play “ball” with the entrenched hard-line generals who control the military structure, which brings to mind: who is really in control of the country?

While one can argue that Xi would be the undisputed – and absolute – leader of the country, the seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC) is arguably the most powerful body, only because it has command of its own army, air force, and navy all rolled into one under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Surmise it to say, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) doesn’t have an army; the Communist Party of China (CPC) does.

Second Island Chain

Second Island Chain

But like always, where there is power, there is struggle for dominance. The Central Military Commission is no exception to this rule. When Xi took over the chairmanship of the CMC, he had to go along with the majority – which consisted mainly of “war hawks” — who want to take full control of the South and East China Seas and extend Chinese naval and air power all the way to the Second Island Chain which encompasses the whole Western Pacific west of Guam from Japan to Papua New Guinea.

Evidently, there is a power struggle between the moderate and pragmatic leaders of the Party and the “war hawks” of the PLA who are allied with Jiang Zemin who led China in the 1990s as her “paramount leader” until he gave up power in 2004. However, Jiang still commands considerable influence among the hard-liners in the Party and the PLA today.

Pax Sinica

"Emperor" Xi Jinping (credit: The Economist)

“Emperor” Xi Jinping (credit: The Economist)

But the days of Jiang might be coming to an end pretty soon. Xi is moving fast to remove Jiang’s allies from power. Indeed, some of Jiang’s prominent allies who were purged are Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Guo is currently held prison for corruption. Could it be that with the Xi faction taking full control of the military, China would be taking a more conciliatory posture with her neighbors?

It is interesting to note that no sooner had the oil rig been removed than Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned China not to deploy any other oil rig to Vietnam’s waters or violate her territorial integrity, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

The question is: Why did China turn tail and run? Clearly, China’s explanation about an impending storm doesn’t hold water. Why would China build a humongous oil rig that cost $1 billion and not be able to withstand a tropical storm? A Vietnamese legal expert on territorial disputes named Hoang Viet was reported to have said that the explanation of an impending storm is an unlikely reason for the withdrawal. “Some said they removed the oil rig to avoid the typhoon, but this is not convincing because the design of this oil rig was done by [a U.S. company] and it can withstand the strongest storms,” Hoang said.

US-China-flags.2Are we looking at a new Chinese geopolitical strategy to reduce tensions in the South China Sea? Is China trying to improve her bilateral relations with Vietnam? I would say that the answer to both questions is “Yes.” But the underlying question that cannot be avoided is: What is the role of the U.S. in this “new” geopolitical game? Being the dominant Pacific power that the U.S. is, China cannot remove the U.S. from any game she’s playing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and all the others who have territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Are we therefore seeing the beginning of a détente between China and the U.S.? Which makes one wonder: Is this the realization of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” and the dawn of Pax Sinica?

And here’s a caveat to this: Watch out when China blinks.


4 Responses. Have your say.

  1. jaime says:

    Nice article, wish it were all true, that China did blink.

    However, is it also possible the rig found on its initial drilling that there is no big deposits of oil or gas to exploit – quantities not economical enough to exploit and pipe to the nearest island, the Paracels and defend from sabotage by Vietnamese forces?

    To conclude that China had blinked, they would have also withdrawn their construction forces from the two locations on Spratley’s where they are trying to create islands….. for the same reason…. a coming typhoon season (to save face). In fact one already grazed the area a month ago.

    I would say China did not blink, it just winked!!! Give it a year and see what China does, then and only then can we come to a more definitive conclusion.

    • Don Azarias says:


      At least we can call the Vietnamese people courageous. Its naval force, with its fleet of poorly armed ships, stood toe to toe with a more powerful Chinese armada.

      Those brave Vietnamese people burned Chinese business establishments and killed Chinese nationals in Vietnam. Now, that’s what we called “guts” and made the Chinese realize that they can’t just push the Vietnamese around.

      Let us ask ourselves this question: Can those tough talking Filipinos do the same to China’s navy and businesses and Chinese nationals in the Philippines? I doubt it. The Scarborough Shoal was taken from us by the Chinese without firing a shot. I doubt if Filipinos can even attack Chinese people and Chinese business houses in the Philippines and burn them to the ground. I have to see it to believe it.

      Let’s just accept the fact that Filipinos nowadays no longer have the courage of Rizal and Bonifacio. It’s sad to say that our bark is worse than our bite.

      Don Azarias

      • perry says:

        Hi Don,

        Sad to say, I have to agree with you. I believe that P-Noy sold out the Scarborough Shoal when he sent Sen. Trillanes to do a back channel negotiation with China. Quite frankly we can only speculate what instructions did P-Noy give Trillanes. All we know is that China took possession of Scarborough when the Philippine coast guard left the shoal. Did P-Noy make a deal with China where he ceded Scarborough for something in return? Reminds me when his dad, Ninoy Aquino, ceded Sabah to Malaysia for something in return. Is this a “Like father, like son” situation? And now P-Noy is saying, “The Filipino is worth fighting for.” Fighting for what?


  2. Tony Amante says:

    Jaime, let us also look closely into the internal struggle within the party, and the PRC in general. We know that party leaders don’t always agree on strategy and policy issues. It seems like our hope for a Pax Sinica or Pax Asiana lies with President Xi Jinping and his allies. Our biggest wish is that China will give up its 9 dash line claim on the South China Sea and specifically on islands, etc. within 200 miles of the Philippine territory. And hope that it will happen soon.

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