Why China and Vietnam are bumping boats

Vietnamese protesters shout anti-China slogans during a rally in the centre of Hanoi back in 2011. Both countries claim the potentially oil-rich Paracel in a long running dispute. 

There's a battle brewing in the South China Sea. Ownership of territory near the Paracel Islands is disputed, and after China moved an oil drilling rig into the area, Vietnam sent ships to investigate.

The Chinese rammed the Vietnamese crafts and shot them with water cannons, but this fight is a lot bigger than one Chinese oil rig.

"It involves not just China and Vietnam, but also Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia," says Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at MIT. Fravel notes that border disputes in the area have been going on for decades and this is China's way of trying to demonstrate its claim to the territory.

"China is desperate for domestic sources of energy," says Ernie Bower, senior adviser for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bower says there's potentially more gas under the waters in the disputed territories than in the Gulf of Mexico, and more oil than in Alaska. The U.S. Geological survey says it's likely there are 2.5 billion barrels of oil, yet to be tapped in the area.

"People have been shot at and killed before between these two countries on these very waters," Bower says, noting the fight is also about fish, a source of protein to feed enormous populations.

It's a very real dispute for the Vietnamese, says Bowers, with the location where the Chinese attacked the Vietnamese ships just 120 miles off its shore.

"And the Vietnamese are rightly concerned about their sovereignty."

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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