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.
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