Even as China has escalated tensions by controversially inviting bids for oil blocks, Vietnam is pushing India to increase its visibility and voice in the region as a supporting role to peacefully resolve the South China Sea dispute. It also wants India to continue exploring the oil and gas-rich region, approving a two-year extension for ONGC Videsh’s stay in South China Sea.
“As a strong country in the region, India will have a stronger voice and should increase its larger role in helping Vietnam and other countries to resolve the problem (of South China Sea),” Vietnam’s Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Nguyen Van Thao told a group of visiting Indian journalists.
On June 26, the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) invited foreign companies to bid for nine blocks, all of which fall within Vietnam’s extended economic zone of 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. This immediately led to sharp response from Vietnam, terming it as an illegal move.
Last Sunday, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city witnessed a rare public demonstration with people raising slogans against the CNOOC move, which has raised nationalist hackles in this strategic South East Asian country.
India is also concerned about the Chinese move as two of the blocks -- 152 and 153 put up for auction by the CNOOC -- overlap with about half of Vietnamese offshore block 128, which is owned by ONGC Videsh.
“I will like to affirm that the bid from China is not in accordance with international law as those areas are within the extended economic zone of Vietnam, 200 km nautical miles,” said Nguyen.
Vietnam has already asked foreign oil companies, including ONGC Videsh, not to participate in the Chinese auction. In fact, the ONGC had earlier informed Vietnam that it was ready to withdraw from block 128, as the topography of the seabed was making it difficult to explore deeply, and also it was not confident of finding any oil there, as the adjoining block 127, which it had explored and surrendered, was found barren.
But Vietnam had not been happy with the ONGC move, pointing out to the awkward timing. It had then proposed that the contract which was supposed to expire in mid-June will be extended, keeping in mind the special conditions of the difficult seabed. “We have approved the extension for two years for the contract. ONGC and Petro Vietnam should be completing the formalities in the next few days,” said a senior Vietnamese government official.
He also assured that the interests of the companies operating in the offshore blocks, especially in view of Chinese aggressive stance in recent months, will be protected. Last year, China had cut off the survey cables of a Vietnamese ship in the same region. “We understand the apprehension, but the Government of Vietnam will do whatever it can to protect the companies,” he said.