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Foreign Policy

China and Vietnam: Danger in the South China Sea

Jan 10 , 2013

The Sino-Vietnamese dispute in the South China Sea has intensified since 2009, as thirst for offshore energy reserves increases.  China and Vietnam have taken very different approaches to advance their respective claims, and each carries important dangers that must be managed carefully to avoid locking the parties—and perhaps the surrounding region—into a path toward conflict. 

The latest round in the dispute began several weeks ago, when Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat of “seriously violating Vietnam’s sovereignty” by cutting a seismic cable of a Petro Vietnam vessel exploring the seabed near the Gulf of Tonkin.  The incident was a replay of a similar altercation in May 2011, prompting the expansion of Vietnamese maritime patrols and the latest outburst in a series of public protests.  The anti-China rallies in Vietnam drew roughly 200 people and dissipated only after Vietnamese authorities detained 22 of the protesters.  China maintains that the sovereignty of the South China Sea is “undisputed” and opposes any unilateral energy exploration efforts by rival claimants. China has focused on deterring other states from exploration or other activities that would help establish footholds and solidify rival claims.  China has typically conducted patrols with nonmilitary vessels belonging to civilian agencies, including maritime affairs and fisheries. Yet in perhaps an early indication that Xi Jinping does not intend to take a gentler approach than his predecessor, on January 1 new rules took effect authorizing the Hainan police to board and search boats in at least some disputed waters, most likely around the Paracel Islands.  China is also boosting its naval power, most recently by contracting for four Russian attack submarines and transferring two destroyers and nine other naval vessels to its maritime surveillance fleet.

China has also pursued a wedge strategy, trying to prevent its smaller rivals from ganging up on Beijing in multilateral talks or seeking protection from extra-regional powers.  For example, the state-affiliated Chinese paper Global Times warned in July 2012 that Vietnam would “feel pain” if it facilitated the U.S. return to the region, asserting that the United States would use its position to force political change in Hanoi.  In December, the state-owned China Daily published an opinion piece arguing that throughout 2012, “some Southeast Asian countries attempted to put bilateral disputes under multilateral frameworks,” and the United States and Japan “took the opportunity to add fuel to the fire, trying to stir up the troubled waters.”  Domestically, China has framed the South China Sea issue as part of a larger struggle against a tightening ring of U.S.-led containment—a narrative that taps into popular nationalism but also reflects genuine strategic concerns.

Although Vietnam has also tried to strengthen its navy, its inability to match China’s might has led it to seek foreign support.  Vietnam has worked with the Philippines and other states to “multilateralize” the issue in regional forums including ASEAN, APEC, and the East Asia Summit.  Although some ASEAN officials have criticized Vietnam for provoking China, most interested parties have joined in Vietnam’s call for a multilateral resolution, forcing China to play diplomatic defense.

Vietnam has had success “internationalizing” the dispute as well, taking advantage of the convergent interests of the United States and other major powers to enlist their help.  U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay, naval visits to three Vietnamese ports, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s push for a multilateral code of conduct—all reinforced the U.S. tilt toward Vietnam in 2012.  After the latest cable-cutting incident in December, an Indian admiral also announced that India is undertaking exercises to protect its interests in the South China Sea, including an agreement with Petro Vietnam enabling India’s state oil and gas firm to explore disputed areas off Vietnam’s southern coast.

Internally, Vietnam has allowed numerous anti-China protests to occur since June 2011—a marked contrast to its swift repression of similar protests in 2007.  The communist leadership remains wary of political protests but has been loath to crack down on anti-China demonstrations for fear of appearing “anti-nationalistic.”  Moreover, many of the protesters’ placards feature English language slogans about international law, making them resonant with Vietnam’s diplomatic effort to broadcast grievances and seek foreign support. 

Both states’ strategies are risky.  China’s assertiveness may harden alliances, accelerate defense spending around the region, and reduce space for future compromises.  Clumsy diplomatic moves—such as printing passports with the disputed territories on a map of China and pressuring Cambodia to do its bidding in recent ASEAN discussions on the South China Sea—only add to the backlash.  As the contest intensifies, nationalist voices gain leverage in Beijing and limit China’s ability to back down.   

Vietnam’s toleration of anti-China protesters—many of whom have criticized the government for selling out to China—may have a similar effect.  Moreover, Hanoi’s balancing tactics irritate Beijing, fuel Chinese nationalism, and add to the PRC’s sense of encirclement.  China has ample military and economic means to punish Hanoi, and it is unclear that Vietnam’s friends will stand by its side if push comes to shove. 

Escalation is not in either state’s interest.  Vietnam would risk a humiliating defeat, and China would only contribute to the containment regime it fears by waging war.  The real danger lies in domestic politics that could compel both states to escalate when further incidents occur at sea.  The more China and Vietnam indulge nationalism to boost their domestic appeal, draw attention, or signal resolve, the less room will remain for compromise.

The United States also has a pivotal role, not by confronting China directly—which would prompt Chinese countermeasures and encourage reckless behavior by Vietnam—but in supporting freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute resolution.  Agreement on sovereignty is highly unlikely in the near future, but incremental progress is possible.  The goal of diplomacy now should be to create space for China, Vietnam, and other claimants to make progress toward a code of conduct and joint development of energy resources.  Although these measures will not solve the South China Sea disputes, they will help make the problem more tractable, steering away from the territorial issues that inflame the greatest nationalist passions.

John D. Ciorciari is an assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan, and author of The Limits of Alignment: Southeast Asia and the Great Powers since 1975 (Georgetown University Press, 2010).

Jessica Chen Weiss is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University and author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (book manuscript under review).

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