Fires in Vietnam could ultimately burn Beijing

By Vikram J. Singh
May 16, 2014

vietnam

The spilling of blood and burning of factories by anti-Chinese rioters sweeping across Vietnam reinforces Beijing’s message to other countries claiming territory in the South China Sea: resistance is costly and ultimately futile.

But a region in which anti-Chinese sentiment grows and where sovereignty disputes disrupt trade and economic growth will burn Beijing as well. Over the long term, a commitment to peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with international law, including some concessions on historic claims, would serve China better than its current path.

China made the provocative first move in this latest incident by deploying a massive oil rig to the contested Paracel Islands. There was no doubt that Vietnam would respond, and China prepared by sending an armada of 80 ships — including seven naval vessels along with the rig. The two countries’ maritime forces are now locked in a standoff with aggressive and dangerous maneuvers, water canons and collisions at sea.

Deploying the oil rig allows Beijing to show that Vietnam is in a lose-lose situation when faced with Chinese aggression. If Hanoi ignores the Chinese move, it allows “new facts on the water” that will bolster China’s legal claims down the road. If it resists, its coast guard and navy will be dragged into a long and costly contest against a stronger force. And if the dispute continues to spark violent protests at home by angry Vietnamese nationalists, investment and international confidence gets disrupted for Vietnam — not China.

vietnam222China does not want open conflict with its neighbors, but when it comes to territorial disputes, the Chinese government has decided it can play hardball with little risk. It can push just enough to advance its own claims, but avoid serious conflict or war by deescalating before things get out of hand.

Beyond the oil rig, Chinese actions in this vein include new construction on contested reefs and shoals occupied by China; patrols and ceremonies on islands claimed by other nations like Malaysia; unilateral fishing bans imposed on other nations while China tolerates illegal fishing and harvesting of coral by Chinese fishermen; and many more. At the same time, China continues to participate in negotiations on a Code of Conduct among the countries it bullies, intended to prevent conflict and prohibit exactly this kind of behavior.

For Chinese leaders committed to defending what they view to be Chinese territory, this aggressive path makes sense for two reasons. First, it teaches the smaller maritime nations of Southeast Asia that they’re better off accommodating Chinese claims than resisting them. In essence, China is saying “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

Second, China knows that its most important claims — like the nine-dash line covering most of the South China Sea — are not well-founded under contemporary international law. By taking aggressive steps now, Beijing can establish a track record of presence and activity that will position China better if it ever needs to clarify claims in accordance with international law, as called for by the United States and other nations.

But this strategy is bold, not wise. Beijing’s actions carry significant risk, and mask a tension between China’s short and long-term goals. Sailors or airmen in tense standoffs could miscalculate and spark an incident that demands military escalation. Countries like Vietnam could also decide to take a stand and choose to fight rather than give in to Chinese pressure. Yet that decision would be calamitous: the last time China and Vietnam went to war, in 1979, about 60,000 people were killed. China would not benefit from such conflict in Asia, especially if it took the blame for derailing Asia’s long run of peace and progress.

Even if it avoids war, China can overplay this hand to such a degree that Southeast Asian nations defy history and join together to resist domination by a resurgent Middle Kingdom. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are far from forming an alliance and have no tradition of such banding together, but ASEAN has grown stronger and is welcoming a greater U.S. role in the region, in part because of China’s assertiveness.

For now, Beijing’s refrain seems to be from the Rolling Stones: “don’t play with me ‘cause you’re playing with fire.” Chinese leaders think the fire will only burn their rivals. They are wrong.

PHOTOS: Residents ride past the damaged Taiwanese-owned Alhonga factory in Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong province May 16, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer 

A still image taken from video shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard officer monitoring Chinese Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea, about 130 miles off shore of Vietnam May 14, 2014. REUTERS/Reuters TV
3 comments

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This is how China defines peaceful rise.
Be ready for more peace.

Posted by Taro-nechan | Report as abusive

From our heart, we, Vietnamese don’t need another war. We love peace. And we will do anything to keep our motherland in peace.
We all live in this world and the world have its rules. You will receive the things you bring to others. Love bring back love. War bring back war. Don’t be a greedy giant, do anything just for your nation.

Posted by KhanhDuong | Report as abusive

China has been doing same old thing for thousand of year to its small neighbor countries. It already got five stars on its flag representing five major ethnic Chinese group (Han, Manchus, Mongols,Hui and Tibetans. Now it wants to add another star on its flag which is Vietnam. The problem is China has failed miserbly in its attempt to force Vietnam into becoming part of China. History has been proving it. Time and time China has invaded Vietnam and it has been pushed back and defeated everytime. Facts is everytime war broke out between Vietnam and China people on both side died and suffered. Government and previous monarch of China don’t really care about people on both sides because China has always initiated war first by sending troops into Vietnam. In 1974 Chinese navy invaded some islands in Paracel islands, in 1978 China sent troops into northern border of Vietnam, in 1986 again Chinese navy invaded some more islands in Spratly islands. Now May 2014, Chinese drilling ship and navy are in Vietnam water exclusive economic zone. What has China learned from history?

Posted by BachDang | Report as abusive