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Conflict

Beijing 'setting precedent' in South China Sea

China has sent four more oil rigs into the South China Sea amid mounting regional tensions. Analyst Ian Storey tells DW Beijing is likely to deploy more rigs in the future as it intends to assert its "historic rights."

China has sent four more oil rigs into the South China Sea in a bid to step up exploration for oil and gas in the in the potentially energy-rich waters. According to media reports, coordinates released by China's Maritime Safety Administration showed the Nanhai number 2 and 5 rigs had been deployed roughly between China's southern Guangdong province and the Pratas Islands, which are occupied by Taiwan. The Nanhai 4 rig was towed to waters close to the Chinese coast. Coordinates for the Nanhai 9, indicated the fourth rig was set to be positioned in the Gulf of Tonkin, an area disputed between China and Vietnam.

Beijing's move comes less than two months after it deployed the giant Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling platform in Vietnam's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which led to violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam as well as accusations from both sides. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In a DW interview, Ian Storey, an analyst at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), tells DW the deployment of the rigs highlights Beijing's determination to assert jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea and that the international community only has very limited options to stop it.

DW: Is China setting a precedent by sending more oil rigs?

Ian Storey: Yes, it is and we can expect to see Beijing deploy more in the future.

What message is China sending to neighboring countries?

, a Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence Wednesday, a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint.

Vietnam and China have traded accusations, with each side claiming the other has engaged in aggressive behavior against its ships

China is telling its neighbors that it intends to assert its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources such as oil, gas and fish within the nine-dash line, a line that the majority of international legal experts regard as being incompatible with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

How does the latest move fit in China's overall territorial strategy in the South China Sea?

"Territory" means land - or in this case the disputed atolls - and what we are really talking about here is an attempt by China to assert jurisdictional rights in the maritime domain.

What options do Southeast Asian nations have to counter China's moves?

The Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea have very limited options. They certainly don't want to get into a shooting match with Beijing as the Chinese military, which has undergone a rapid program of modernization over the past two decades, would quickly prevail. Diplomatically they can demand, as Vietnam has, that China withdraws its rigs - but Beijing will simply ignore this request.

I think the best option for Hanoi is to mount a legal challenge to the deployment of the oil Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in The Hague. However, even if ITLOS were to rule in Vietnam's favor, I think China would simply ignore it and absorb the costs to its reputation.

What can the international community, and especially the United States, do to deescalate tensions?

The options are limited. The US isn't going to risk a conflict with China over the presence of oil rigs in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, the international community should continue to raise its concerns with China that unilateral and provocative actions such as this risk undermining regional peace and stability.

The international community should also continue to emphasize the importance of freedom of navigation, and that China should bring its claims into line with UNCLOS. At the end of the day though, this crisis will only be resolved when China withdraws the oil rig which it says it will do on August 15.

A new crisis will emerge when the rig is deployed again into disputed waters, most likely into the Philippines' EEZ. That will really test the limits of the US-Philippine alliance.

Dr. Ian Storey is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore.He is the author of Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security (Routledge, 2013).