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Spat with Vietnam part of China's strategy: experts

BEIJING -- China sending an oil rig to waters disputed with Vietnam is a move to assert its legal claim and practical hold over contested territory whatever the short-term political and diplomatic costs, analysts say — but could play into Washington's hands.

Beijing's controversial move to dispatch the deep-water rig along with a reported 70 vessels triggered clashes in the South China Sea, just after a visit to the region by U.S. President Barack Obama and ahead of this weekend's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

It also comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and Manila, which has asked a United Nations tribunal to rule on China's claims over most of the sea. Beijing — which prefers to negotiate directly with its smaller, weaker neighbors — has vehemently rejected arbitration.

Experts say that while Beijing has cast the drilling operation by state-owned CNOOC as part of its long-term oil exploration program, energy resources are probably a secondary consideration.

Rather, they note, the move appears to be a fresh effort by China to demonstrate a so-called “incident of sovereignty,” part of a broader strategy geared towards showing Beijing has control of disputed territory.

“I think that the Chinese government is trying to be assertive with regard to its claims about this or that little island in the South China or East China Seas in order to keep those claims alive,” said Barry Sautman, a specialist on Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

“Under international law ... all states that have territorial disputes must periodically do something to show that they have an active interest in the territory in question,” he said.

“Whether this is politically beneficial to China is, of course, another matter,” he added.

Beijing has defended its actions as “completely reasonable, legal and justified,” arguing that the intended drilling location is close to the Paracel Islands.

China has controlled the archipelago since ousting South Vietnamese forces in 1974 but Hanoi still claims them.

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