Dogs of war straining at the leash in East Asia

Current events in the South China Sea have the potential to set off a major conflict

ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

“Uninhabited and uninhabitable rocks”, Jeff Bader, President Barack Obama’s former National Security Council director for Asia, said last year about maritime quarrels in the China Seas. His words echoed others: “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”, Neville Chamberlain famously said in 1938, one year before Adolf Hitler started the Second Word War.

Is history about to repeat itself? The events currently taking place in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam but mostly occupied by China, together with the shockwave of anti-Chinese riots erupting in Vietnam for the first time since 1979, have the potential to set off a major conflict.

China has not simply taken one isolated and easily withdrawn action. This is a whole new league: China has brought a huge and costly oil rig to these waters and surrounded it with protective security layers. At last count, there were 86 Chinese ships in the region, including missile, anti-missile, and anti-submarine vessels. China has also deployed planes and helicopters that aggressively buzz Vietnamese crafts as far as ten miles away, and high-pressure water hoses that injure targeted sailors on board those crafts. This is not the same Kabuki-like pantomime that China has carried on with Japanese coastguard ships around the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. It is highly aggressive behaviour that reflects China’s sense of military superiority over Vietnam. 

It is foolish to talk about this being a “surprise” or perhaps an isolated decision by China’s oil company, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). The level of presence makes it impossible that this was a decision taken only by bureaucrats or interest groups. And CNOOC is among those energy companies whose leadership has recently been purged in order to completely assert President Xi Jinping’s control. This is the confident action of an imperial power.

It is also a very cunning move. As is often pointed out, Vietnam is not part of any military alliance. Its last major ally was the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin, who will soon visit China, is currently very interested in keeping China acquiescent in or at least inactive towards Russia’s own irredentist moves in Ukraine. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shown little concrete solidarity, apart from making statements of concern. In fact, the Philippines and Vietnam, currently the two countries most directly targeted by China, have occasionally fought with each other over maritime disputes. Vietnam is one of only three countries that make a holistic claim to huge swaths of the South China Sea, along with China and Taiwan. Therefore, it is not well placed to invoke international law or to take its case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, as the Philippines did in its own dispute with China in 2013. Vietnam is now paying for the fact that it did not earlier adopt a much more useful policy of emphasising dispute resolution and limited claims.

Worse, the contested area in which China has installed its $1 billion oil rig – an asset that cannot be removed as easily as a fishing trawler – is close to Woody Island (also called Yongxing Island or Phu Lam Island). This island has been occupied by China since 1950, and is equipped with a convenient airfield and an artificial harbour. Neither Vietnam nor the United States challenged China’s possession of the island during the Vietnam War, and the island is big enough to generate exclusive economic zone rights. This means that the area in which China is now aggressively conducting deep-sea oil exploration, although it looks blatantly close to Vietnamese shores, is actually in need of negotiation or legal arbitration to determine its status.

China has, therefore, laid its trap on well-chosen ground, which serves to explain its escalatory move. Vietnam’s frustration shows in the government’s decision to allow public sentiment to run its course. But the Vietnamese state does not have the same micro-management capacity as China’s security and propaganda apparatus. In public xenophobic demonstrations in China, the targets have never been mistaken, and they have always been very carefully delimited. In Vietnam’s case, not only are traditional anti-Chinese riots happening, but the targets also mistakenly include Taiwanese, South Korean, and other foreign-owned factories. Vietnam, which is competing with China for foreign investment, is shooting itself in the foot.

The situation will not end here. China’s duplicity is astounding, and it will generate a wave of mistrust across the region. Only six months ago, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang negotiated an agreement between China and Vietnam in Hanoi on joint development at sea. It seems that the only sure thing about China’s behaviour in its neighbourhood is that China will continuously reverse its decisions and challenge its neighbours one by one – if not, some day, all together.

Behind Vietnam’s loss of face and national humiliation lies a serious danger. China is confident that Vietnam’s economic ties to China and relative political isolation ensure that it will not be able to act. This may indeed be the case in the short term. But the Chinese, as well as others, should realise that it is a mistake to discount the longer-term capacity of Vietnamese nationalism. The authorities in Hanoi are now faced with a serious legitimacy problem. Even the land border settlement with China in 1999 cost the Party General Secretary his job. Vietnam’s leaders will have to react, and if they cannot do so immediately on the high seas, they will likely shift strategy and make another alliance, as they have always done in similar circumstances.

Evidently, Xi Jinping and his colleagues believe that they can act in Vietnam’s vicinity with a calculated minimal risk, given China’s clear military superiority. They may also be encouraged by the Crimea and Ukraine crisis, in which the traditional power of fait accompli is turning back the clock of history. But literally all 12 maritime neighbours of China are bound to see the writing on the wall. Their only safety lies in coming together as a group. Vietnam is the only maritime neighbour that had actually achieved a negotiated settlement of some of its border issues with China, and China and Vietnam have held bilateral talks on border issues for two decades. That it is now preyed upon speaks volumes about the distance between China’s diplomacy and its actions. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow