According to a senior fellow at the US-based think-tank, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the risk of a military confrontation between China and Vietnam in the next 12 to 18 months. A multitude of issues currently complicate the relationship between the two countries and are straining it further. Both have had military engagements in the past including a brief but especially bloody war in 1979 where Vietnam emerged victorious. Vietnam poses a threat to Beijing’s plans in the region while Hanoi refuses to bow to what it sees as China’s attempts towards domination. Though both are socialist countries, their goals are not aligned and this is perhaps most apparent in the South China Sea dispute where the possibility of China coming into conflict with Vietnam is far higher than with any other disputing country. Even a minor, limited confrontation would be disastrous for the region.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a Senior Fellow at CFR recently released A China-Vietnam Military Clash that analyzes the relationship between China and Vietnam and presents three potential scenarios that could lead to a military confrontation. Additionally the report identifies indicators that can serve as warnings of impending hostilities. Kurlantzick rounds out the report with possible implications for and how the U.S. can play a role in diffusing rising Vietnam-China tensions.
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Thorns in the China-Vietnam Relationship
Maritime disputes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea perhaps have the greatest possibility for leading to conflict. The South China Sea dispute has been receiving much attention over the past two years primarily due to provocative actions taken by China. Since 2011, China has boldly reasserted claims to around 90 percent of the South China Sea through island reclamation and military maneuvers. Vietnam has not sat idly by and has instead responded in kind. A Pew poll released earlier this year showed that 83 percent of Vietnamese are concerned about territorial disputes with China, second only to Filipinos.
Headlines were made in May 2014 when China’s largest state-owned oil company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam off the Paracel Islands. The 2014 incident resulted in a maritime standoff, riots in both countries, and several weeks where senior leaders ignored each other until tensions were defused. Since then other minor incidents have occurred that point to increasing strains in the relationship.
China is not alone in carrying out such provocative activities. Indeed Vietnam’s partnership with China’s continental rival, India in conducting oil exploration activities in disputed waters has repeatedly angered Beijing. Additionally, naval and maritime militia forces from both countries have repeatedly harassed each other and incidents of ships ramming each other are growing more frequent.
In its attempt to solidify its hold in the South China Sea, China has engaged in massive land reclamation projects. This has made possible the construction of a 3,000 meter long airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef and now it appears that China is building airbases on Subi and Mischief Reef as well. In response, Vietnam has commenced its own land reclamation projects though not nearly on the scale of China’s.
Vietnam’s engagement with regional powers and its growing relationship with the U.S. have caught the ire of Beijing. In the last several years, U.S. foreign policy has recognized the importance of Asia and has responded with a “pivot” towards it. Vietnam is receiving much attention from Washington as a potential strategic ally to counter China. Military ties between the two are growing with the possibility of future exercises being very real. A Pew poll shows that about three-quarters of Vietnamese hold a favorable opinion of the U.S. In the region Vietnam is increasing cooperation with powers such as India, the Philippines, and Japan on a variety of fronts including military.
Competition for influence in mainland Southeast Asia is rising putting both countries at odds. Until the late 2000s Vietnam dominated the region though has since been supplanted by China. Fueled by its rapidly growing economy, China is now the largest aid donor and investment source in the region and has cultivated strong military relationships with Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam’s neighbors, Cambodia and Laos.
Nationalism is on the rise in both countries, especially after the 2014 incident. Distrust of China is prevalent in Vietnam and among countries in East Asia, Vietnam is second to Japan in holding the least favorable view of China. According to Pew surveys, only 19% of Vietnamese harbor a favorable view of China. The bloody Sino-Vietnam 1979 war has not been forgotten; Vietnamese still see it as their victory over a bullying, invading China while the Chinese would rather forget their humiliating defeat. Today Vietnamese view China’s actions in the South China Sea as an attempt to dominate the region and see China as exploitative.
While the rapid buildup and advancement of China’s military is well known, Vietnam has been engaged in its own buildup. Vietnam is investing heavily in maritime and aviation assets in an attempt to build a credible deterrent to China. Though grossly outnumbered by China, Vietnam’s navy is in the process of acquiring six attack submarines from Russia as well as numerous warships. While the naval balance will still favor China, the threat posed to its navy is rising and this should give Beijing reason to tread carefully in the region against Vietnam. Long-range land and ship based anti-ship missiles threaten warships of China’s South Sea Fleet even in their base in Hainan while advanced long-range combat aircraft extend Vietnam’s reach.
Scenarios for Conflict
Three potential conflict scenarios are portrayed. The most likely arises from an escalation of tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea. The other two involve exchanges of fire across the China-Vietnam land border, and unintended military actions surrounding Vietnamese military exercises with its new strategic partners.
There is a strong possibility that a confrontation might occur around disputed territories. Already there are reports suggesting that China is preparing to move an oil rig back into the same waters that set off the May 2014 dispute. A standoff between Beijing’s various maritime assets and Hanoi’s would undoubtedly occur again leading to a similar situation. The possibility of collisions or misinterpretation of each other’s actions occurring are very real and can quickly escalate resulting in guns being fired in anger. Neither country has adopted a memorandum of understanding on resolving maritime disputes and as a result there is seemingly little to prevent such a situation.
Since 2014, opposing forces on the Vietnam-China border have exchanged fire twice. Militarization along the border only increases the possibility of further exchanges that could be far worse. Rising tensions emanating from the South China Sea dispute or anger in Vietnam over China’s damming activities along the Mekong River will spread to the border. Having already suffered the Chinese invasion in 1979, Vietnamese are extremely wary of China’s actions along it and any significant activities will be met by a proportional response from Hanoi.
The final scenario concerns unintended military actions surrounding Vietnamese military exercises with its new strategic partners. Military exercises of various kinds have been held by Vietnam with regional countries and these are expected to expand in the future. Beijing Is not pleased with Hanoi cozying up diplomatically to powers such as the U.S., India, and Japan and is much less so with the possibility of growing parallel military relations being played out in exercises. Undoubtedly, China will monitor these exercises raising the risk of incidents arising from assertive Chinese naval and air patrolling activities.
Kurlantzick identifies several warning indicators of potential conflict. Four are strategic indicators of general deteriorating relations while three are tactical and would imply a high possibility of conflict in a matter of only weeks.
The strategic indicators are official Chinese and Vietnamese public declarations, mobilization of public protests, announcements of new Vietnamese strategic partnerships, and Chinese aid initiatives in mainland Southeast Asia.
It is atypical for either government to publicly declare positive developments in their bilateral relations; typically public declarations are limited to denouncements of each other. Any report of an impending press conference in Beijing or Hanoi related to their relations would most likely point to deterioration in said relations.
Anti-China public demonstrations are becoming more commonplace in Vietnam since 2007 and Hanoi has been tacitly encouraging them. It must be said though that Hanoi clamped down on anti-China protests during the May 2014 oil rig incident when they turned deadly and gave foreign investors and Vietnam’s political elite, cause for concern. Anti-Vietnam protests in China are a much rarer occurrence on the other hand. In light of the 2014 events, large scale anti-China public protests in Vietnam in the future could imply government support.
As Vietnam is expanding its relations with other regional powers to offset China, any announcements of new or closer formalized relations should be taken as a sign of Vietnam more greatly expressing its concerns about China. On the other hand, large future Chinese aid packages to Laos, Cambodia. Thailand or Myanmar should be viewed as Beijing further increasing its leverage and dominance in mainland South East Asia at the expense of Vietnam.
The tactical indicators are movement of oil rigs into disputed waters and/or declarations of claims, army drills near the China-Vietnam land border and Chinese military preparations in response to announced exercises by Vietnam and its partners.
New oil and gas explorations announced by either Vietnam or China in disputed areas will quickly draw a negative response. Official denouncements over infringements of territory are to be expected as well as increased military activity in the vicinity of such exploration activities. Army exercises near or along the China-Vietnam land border can be seen as indicative of deteriorating tensions as both countries refrain from such activities. Meanwhile, Chinese activity around Vietnamese military exercises with its partners should not be taken lightly.
China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and this economic aspect of the relationship between the two countries would lead one to believe the risk for conflict is small due to the economic consequences. On the other hand, Hanoi has responded to Beijing’s provocations rather brazenly almost indicating a lack of fear. Among East Asian countries that enjoy less than optimal relations with China, Vietnam is the only country apart from Japan that can counter China militarily to a high degree. Vietnam is building up its military and expanding its regional relationships to counter and offset China. Despite China’s military superiority, if provoked or attacked Vietnam will most likely not shy away from a fight.
Provocative actions by Beijing in the South China Sea show no sign of slowing down any time soon and China will continue to aggressively enforce its claims in the region. Another problem that increases the potential for conflict is the authoritarian nature of the governments in both countries. Neither side can back down from their claims as to do so would imply defeat and would bring about a loss of legitimacy for the governments. This raises the stakes and chances of conflict. Unfortunately as of now, the possibility of a future military engagement between China and Vietnam is growing increasingly likely.