Would China and Vietnam want a fight?

Bill Bishop (@niubi) raised an important point in yesterday’s Sinocism:

economic problems in china, economic problems in vietnam. a skirmish in the south china sea might be a distraction and an economic fillip for both?

This is worth thinking through carefully, and i would be most obliged if readers could pick out the holes in my logic and knowledge.

My propositions are

  1. that China could benefit from such a fight, though it might be too afraid of US opportunism to grasp them; and
  2. even if China was indeed up for a fight, it would take both of them to tango, and Vietnam wouldn’t be keen.

China would be the likely beneficiary of a live-fire skirmish involving the PLAN, for under that pretext China could evict Vietnam from one or more islands of its choosing. That would be the first time the People’s Republic had ever controlled an island in the Spratly Archipelago.

Possession of a single island in the Spratlys would hugely enhance the position of the People’s Republic strategically, logistically, and legally. What is more, i dare say it might be viewed as a glorious success by some people in China.

“Retrieving” 收复 a Spratly island by evicting an opponent is perhaps the one action that could actually impress the Chinese public and bolster the party’s “nationalist legitimacy” at home.

Despite possessing a much better navy and air force than the Philippines, i think Vietnam would be a more appealing target for an island “retrieval” simply because there would be no issue of the US becoming involved via treaty obligation. This is also reflected in the fact that Vietnam is the only country the PRC has attacked in the South China Sea.

The best opportunity for the PRC to make a move like this would be a clear-cut instance of Vietnamese aggression. A flagrant attack a PLA Navy boat by Vietnamese fishermen might constitute a justfiable rationale for an island battle. If multiple attacks happened (or could somehow be made to happen) then China could instruct its military to go looking for the attackers on one or more of the Vietnamese-controlled Spratly Islands.

Would America step in to prevent China from gaining such prime a foothold as a Spratly Island? I think not, as long as China could convince the world that Vietnam had started the incident.

On the other hand, even if Vietnam were to oblige by recklessly attacking the PLA Navy, the risk for China would be that the US could use the ensuing PLA retaliation as an opportunity to assert itself in the region, and perhaps even to bring the PLA’s development “under control”. From my hypothetical Chinese military perspective, the US could conceivably unleash its considerable (though much-degraded by Saddam’s WMDs) narrative-building powers to convince the world that China was to blame for any clash — even, or perhaps especially, a clash brought about by Vietnam, under US encouragement.

So while China would stand to gain a great deal from a skirmish, it could still be deterred by its own belief in the US’s evil intentions and opportunism.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has its good friend Russia increasingly tangled up with its own fortunes through a range of energy development partnerships (“such as Vietsovpetro, Rusvietpetro, Gazpromviet and Vietgazprom”), and Russia may soon be present in Cam Ranh Bay, which Vietnam has offered as a the site of a Russian supply and maintenance base.

Xinhua’s Moscow-datelined report from August 27, ‘Vietnam declines to give Russia exclusive rights to naval base‘ (my emphasis) appears to be clutching at straws trying to find a positive angle for China; President Truong Tan Sang’s 5-day visit to Russia last month appears to have been a riproaring success. The reason Russia will not have exclusive rights, is of course that Vietnam has invited the US military to use Cam Ranh Bay too.

The Chinese media have frequently accused the US of trying to embolden China’s co-claimants into making provocations. From Hillary’s famous declaration of national interest, to (non-combat) military exercises in July 2011, to Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay in June this year, the US has definitely been pushing things forward with Vietnam too.

In the event of a skirmish with China, however, Vietnam still couldn’t count on support from either the US or Russia, both of which continue to have enormous national interests in maintaining peace with the People’s Republic.

When it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam is the only country that has ever actually tried to fight with the PRC there — and that did not end well (see video at top). Yet Vietnam’s position in the Spratlys remains very favourable compared to the People’s Republic’s, occupying at least six islands and more than twenty reefs and atolls, and an estimated 2,000 troops posted as of 2002. Why would they risk this, with possession is (probably) nine-tenths of the law?

To me, this all points to Vietnam being determined to avoid serious escalations, even as the US bolsters its position in the region.

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8 Comments on “Would China and Vietnam want a fight?”

  1. [...] Would China and Vietnam want a fight? « southseaconversations 讨论南海 – In the event of a skirmish with China, however, Vietnam still couldn’t count on support from either the US or Russia, both of which continue to have enormous national interests in maintaining peace with the People’s Republic. When it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam is the only country that has ever actually tried to fight with the PRC there — and that did not end well (see video at top). Yet Vietnam’s position in the Spratlys remains very favourable compared to the People’s Republic’s, occupying at least six islands and more than twenty reefs and atolls, and an estimated 2,000 troops posted as of 2002. Why would they risk this, with possession is (probably) nine-tenths of the law? To me, this all points to Vietnam being determined to avoid serious escalations, even as the US bolsters its position in the region. [...]

  2. ChimericaWar says:

    I think you’re totally on the money. There are many in the PLA that want a war. Vietnam is their best bet. Hu Jintao is keeping the lid on this boiling pot for the moment. He will not risk war so close to the end of his watch. Even if Hu remains head of the CMC it will become increasingly harder for him to hold back the dogs once he’s ‘semi-retired’ Especially if the economy gets worse – which it will.

    As the old adage goes – “No new gear on race day” the PLA/N wants to test out their new hardware on a foe, flex some muscle and win back the hearts and minds of the masses. It hurts them to be held back by the top leaders, looking like they’re weak. They want war.

    Japan and the Philippines are really poor options for China’s debutante war appearance – Vietnam is the best, as each one can blame the other for starting it and the US or Russia wont do anything tangible. Although they may provide valuable intelligence on PLAN assets.

    If China attacks Philippines or Japan the very least we could expect is that the PLAN is harassed by US subs. As we saw with the appearance of the US attack sub in Manila bay during the Scarborough Shoal incident. This was sending a clear message to the PLAN – “Sure – you might be able to sink the Philippine navy, but you’ll have to run for China’s shores once you’re done.” The same US subs will not defend Vietnam like they would for Japan or the Philippines.

    Vietnam knows that it is the most likely candidate for China’s ire, that’s why it is inviting both the US and Russia to the party. Vietnam does NOT want this war – just like you say.

    Finally, the thing that holds the firebrand generals back is that Vietnam is a cool customer – it is not guaranteed that the PLAN can win. So, even though the likes of Luo Yuan may bluster that the PLA should fear no-one – career generals and party cadres whose life has been spent avoiding responsibility get really twitchy about a real war for a feisty country like Nam – one that they ‘could’ lose.

    My own opinion is that China will absolutely NOT go to war in 2012 – Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines all know this and so a certain amount of tweaking the donkey’s tail is happening. Just enough to make the hand-over of power less smooth – but not enough to start war.

    A significant part of this is aimed at upsetting the harmony and back room dealings at Beidaihe. Surrounding countries want to see China chase its tail, rather than give them space for a happy change over of power this fall. I why not? The CCP doesn’t deserve breathing space to prolong its tyranny.

    • I’m not convinced that the real PLA generals are that war-hungry. As smart, long-term strategic thinkers they would know that a conflict with the US in the near future would be disastrous for the PRC and the PLA. It’s still decades too soon.

      Although i’m sure everyone in China’s party & military leadership would dearly love a proper foothold in the Spratlys, they would only be keen to do something about if the circumstances were such that they were super-confident there would be no US intervention. And given the (justifiable) suspicion with which they view the US, their assumption is more likely to be that there would be US intervention. So while i argued above that the benefits of a skirmish would be great for China, i don’t think many people who matter would be raring to go.

  3. [...] Would China and Vietnam want a fight? – “My propositions are: 1) that China could benefit from such a fight, though it might be too afraid of US opportunism to grasp them; and 2) even if China was indeed up for a fight, it would take both of them to tango, and Vietnam wouldn’t be keen.“ [...]

  4. Viet Nam can win Chinna.
    Viet Nam will win Chinna.
    Viet Nam must win Chinna.
    Because It’s Vietnamese’s home

  5. HuyT says:

    Hi Andrew.
    I did enjoy reading your articles in this blog. They offers very faithful descriptions (not a view) of what is currently happening in the South Sea (or East Sea). I do commend your avoiding to deliver any personal statement (like this sucks or that is evil, …etc.) regarding the current stance of the involving countries.

    Indeed, this is a peril time for Vietnam. Never before has the communist leaders faced so many challenges as it is now: corruption, the people’s discontent over freedom of speech and land nationalization, as well as the fight between the leaders themselves for the supreme position. While the conflict with China is still reported on media as tensions, the not-so-pro China leaders try desperately to regain the support of the domestic and international crowds, and intend to play a long game. The pro China leaders, on the other hand, seek to drop the game early by (intentionally) labeling the protests as riots, and protesters as extremists. This margin between ‘tension’ and ‘war’ is by no means the time for Vietnam to reclaim its sea territory (as it claimed) but the time for this country to reconsider their path of communism and the policy toward the big neighbor. Both sides know too well that Vietnam, whether united or not, has no resource to reclaim the two archipelagos from China. The only thing they can do is to become a bone (in the rancor mouth) upholding an instant conquest of the China over the South Sea.

    The view of Chinese leaders, in contrast to the Vietnamese colleagues, seems to be quite united on this. As a great nation, with the public will as the momentum, there is no going back for them. While the US is futile and Russian indifferent, there is no better time to strike toward the south than this, and they’d better be careful so that Vietnam is the only victim.

    There is one point I’d like to note, that the Chinese public don’t pay much attention to the conflict with Vietnam as they do not consider Vietnam is on par with them, throughout the nation’s history. However, the sense of rivalry toward the Japanese is apparent, not just because of what happened during WWII but of the matter of a worth opponent. To many, the Chinese deserved to swap place with the Japanese, US, or British. To many, the colonization time should be back to redraw the world map (Yes, I am a Vietnamese). The oil rig is a another crucial step toward that status.

    Personally, I predict the ‘war’ will start and end with a single bullet fired. The shot will not even be on any state media.

    We can only hope, with a better education system free of propaganda, extreme nationalism in China will eventually fade away and the other countries can shake hands with them without guarding their back. Of course, that will happen after China will have become the unchallenged flagship of the world economy. We can only hope that we have not lost all.


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