Vietnamese pop champagne as Chinese oil rig leaves

Picture of the crew of Vietnamese coast guard ship 8003. Image copyright NGA PHAM
Image caption Sailors and journalists onboard the Vietnamese coast guard ship 8003 relaxed on deck as China towed away its oil rig

China's decision to move its oil rig from waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi near the disputed Paracel archipelago followed more than two months of intense maritime activity.

The decision will come as a relief to Vietnamese fishermen who claim they have been harassed by Chinese coast guard ships operating in the area.

But the new calm is an uneasy one in the choppy waters of the South China Sea.

"I have news for you," Captain Nguyen Van Hung told a group of sleepy journalists on board the Vietnamese Coastguard ship 8003 on the morning on 16 July.

"The Chinese seem to have moved their rig away so we may head back sooner than planned."

The 8003 had brought a handful of foreign and local journalists to the site near the Paracels where the Chinese state oil corporation CNOOC had placed its largest deep water rig - the Haiyang Shiyou 981 - in early May so that they could see it "with their own eyes".

Intimidating shadow

The previous afternoon, we had huddled together on the left side of the 8003's lower deck, trying to record on camera a cat-and-mouse chase between a dozen Chinese ships and a couple of Vietnamese vessels.

A small but agile Vietnamese fisheries boat with red and yellow stripes was flanked by two white Chinese maritime surveillance ships. Next to them, a huge Chinese vessel, the 3,000-tonne Haixun 22, cast an intimidating shadow over the chase.

The Vietnamese boat accelerated towards the coastguard ship just as two more Chinese ships appeared from behind. As the Vietnamese ships retreated, their loudspeakers blasted warnings to the Chinese ships in both Vietnamese and Chinese languages.

The chase lasted about 15 minutes, with the Chinese vessels only turning away once they were sure that the Vietnamese ships had been blocked from the rig.

Image copyright NGA PHAM
Image caption Lieutenant-Colonel Ngo Minh Tung (right) was among several officials who briefed journalists
Image copyright NGA PHAM
Image caption A Vietnamese fisheries boat (R) squared off with Chinese ships (L and C)
Image copyright NGA PHAM
Image caption The 3,000-tonne Chinese ship Haixun 22 cast an intimidating shadow over the chase

Similar scenes have taken place many times during the last two months. Sometimes they have turned more aggressive - each side has accused the other of ramming and using water cannon.

We were told there were at least 70 Chinese ships around the oil rig this week, while the number of Vietnamese boats was about 40.

All of them seemed to have disappeared during the night. The next morning, we woke up to an empty sea with only a couple of Vietnamese fisheries boats quietly sailing alongside our ship.

The captain said the oil rig began moving at 21:00 and by 08:00 the following morning was already some 30 nautical miles from its original location.

The Vietnamese quickly claimed victory.

"We were fighting [against the Chinese oil rig] with peaceful means… We have made them aware of their wrongful violation of Vietnamese sovereignty and so they have stopped," said Lieutenant-Colonel Ngo Minh Tung, a commander of the Vietnamese Coast Guard Zone 1.

Uncertain future

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed the "efforts by the Vietnamese people and law executing forces" and urged China "not to repeat its illegal actions".

China, meanwhile, emphasised that it was drilling in "indisputable" waters and accused Vietnam of "unjustified disruptions" to operations. State media outlets have stressed the removal of the rig had nothing to do with external pressures.

For our last dinner on board the 8003, celebratory beer and a bottle of champagne were served.

Young sailors pleased to return to shore so soon after leaving shared a few drinks and jokes, and took photos. We exchanged phone numbers and befriended each other on Facebook.

Only a couple of older officers did not seem so sure.

A veteran, who had served a long time in the Vietnamese navy before joining the coast guard, said the move of the rig was "good news".

"But we never know what will happen next, do we?" he asked.

Vietnam and China have had a long and turbulent history littered with conflict and mistrust.

Both countries claim sovereignty over the Paracels and adjacent waters. The Vietnamese say it is their traditional fishing grounds while the Chinese claim it lies within the so-called nine-dash line - which it uses to claim much of the South China Sea.

Nobody is prepared to give up sovereignty and so the waters of the South China Sea will remain a potential flashpoint, perhaps for a very long time.

As we were leaving the recently vacated oil rig site, Typhoon Rammasun was lashing the Philippines on its way north to the South China Sea.

With the storm looming, the sea was dark and unsettled - like the choppy relationship between Beijing and Hanoi.

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