by Austin Bay
June 10, 2014
The China-Vietnam confrontation in the South China Sea continues to roil Asia.
Gun battles have yet to erupt in the disputed Paracel Island maritime zone where, in early May, China deployed a very large oil exploration and drilling ship. In lieu of anti-ship missiles and fighter-bombers, the antagonists are using media, political and legal-judicial weapons.
Restraint by both Hanoi and Beijing is good news. However, both countries believe vital national interests are at risk. Vietnam has warned, repeatedly, that restraint has limits.
Both countries maintain flotillas of fishing boats, small ships and other sea craft in the contested area. Actual physical violence at sea has been limited to ramming incidents and water cannons splashing an opponent. Ramming, of course, is an ancient form of naval attack, still used on occasion. On May 26, a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. Hanoi called the incident an intentional attack; Beijing called it an accident and blamed the Vietnamese boat. According to Hanoi, at least two dozen other Vietnamese vessels have been damaged by Chinese ships since early May.
Deadly violence has occurred on land as well. Riots targeting ethnic Chinese erupted in several Vietnamese cities. China claimed four people were killed and over 300 injured. China also evacuated some 2,000 civilians from Vietnam.
Restraint? Neither side is backing down. This week China decided to take the dispute with Vietnam to the U.N., where China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has a veto.
One on one, China versus Vietnam -- Vietnam definitely has the weaker hand. Chinese military and economic capabilities vastly exceed those of the Vietnamese. To rectify the imbalance of power, Vietnam is seeking a Cold War-era solution: a relationship with the U.S.
China knows that U.S. military and political support for the Philippines, and potentially Vietnam, blunts Beijing's enormous power advantage. Since 1949, when the Communists seized mainland China and the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, U.S. power has backed up Taiwan's independence and frustrated mainland demands for unification.
If an immediate U.S.-Vietnam alliance seems like a stretch, even the suggestion of U.S. defense cooperation gives Hanoi leverage. Vietnam could offer U.S. naval forces the use of Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay base facility. The irony is palpable. The U.S. built Cam Ranh during the Vietnam War.
A shooting war is not in Beijing's interest. China's Communist leaders know their nation's economic miracle buys domestic peace. Arguably any Asian war involving China could harm its trade-based economy. A war pitting China against the U.S. and/or Japan would wreak global economic damage.
However, over the last 20 years, its actions demonstrate that it does not accept political boundary as currently drawn. Though these actions are often accompanied (or masked) by vague or opaque political statements, over the last five years they have become increasingly aggressive.
Vietnam contends that China's decision to deploy the oil drilling ship is a major step in the process of achieving a long-range goal: extending Chinese sovereignty to the "nine-dash line." This maritime boundary line dips south for hundreds of kilometers from China's southern coast to near the island of Borneo. Borneo is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing's claims put it in direct conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Which is why Vietnamese diplomats now tell their East and Southeast Asian compatriots that Chinese expansionism means, "if we're in the neighborhood, we're all in this together." Vietnam and the Philippines are discussing security cooperation. South Korea and Vietnam have also discussed common security interests. By provoking its neighbors, China has created political conditions that could lead to the creation of a rather muscular "neighborhood" defense alliance.