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
- that China could benefit from such a fight, though it might be too afraid of US opportunism to grasp them; and
- 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.
While Obama’s every move prompts celebrity coverage from Australia’s media, it’s his announcement of increased US troop numbers that has captured attention in China.
The front page of the Global Times today is dominated by the headline, ‘Australia divided over American troops’, underneath which appears a Xinhua story about Australia’s “debate” over the American military increase. (I put debate in quotes because there has actually been remarkably little debate.)
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has labelled the plan “inappropriate”, and all the major news portals – Sina, NetEase, Sohu, Phoenix and Tencent – are running this announcement prominently on their front pages. So far the volume of comments has not been huge, but aside from the obligatory condemning of the hapless Foreign Ministry spokesman, it seems to be bringing out China’s liberals, a group, or, more accurately, a strain of opinion, whose existence sometimes gets called into question when it comes to mass internet discussions.Normally such views are either “harmonized” by the censors or simply outnumbered and shouted down.
But here they are, these liberal views, dominating the comments on NetEase’s lead report, ‘China says US’s troop deployment in Australia inappropriate’. Or so it would appear…i should note that they are often accused of being paid by the US government, just as anyone who expresses agreement with or approval of the Chinese government tends to be denounced as a “fifty-center“.
The discussion is starting to take off (so far 1918 comments and 36,637 participants – the latter figure has increased by about 11,000 in the last couple of hours):
[問水 ("Ask Water") - Guangzhou, Guangdong]: The United States, the hope of humanity! [5073 recommends]
In reply to “Ask Water” above – [铲除五1毛与美1狗 ("Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs") - Jinan, Shandong]: Hope is not blind worship. There must be clear acknowledgement of what race of person one is, and what races and suited to which systems. Stop dreaming, child
In reply to “Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs” – [无毛的野爹 ("Hairless (/no-Mao) wild dad") - Tangshan, Hebei]: At least he still has dreams. As for you, go back to your basket and gnaw on a bone. 
[仇日者 ("Japan hater") - Shenzhen, Guangdong]: The point is, what use is saying something is inappropriate??? Haha. It’s like a burly thug has parked his car so that it’s blocking the gate to your house. You hide, quivering, inside your house, saying “You’re blocking the driveway, it’s not appropriate” – is that any use??? If you had the capability, you’d go out and turn the car over! [3328 recommends]
In reply to “Eliminate fifty-centers and American dogs” – [shen0123 - Asia-Pacific region]: We should say that some races are suited to being people, and some races are suited to being swine. 
. . .
[Liyulongmen - Beijing]: “Inappropriate”?? This is called interference in the US and Australia’s internal affairs. The Heavenly Kingdom would dispatch troops if it had the capability 
In an illustration of how trends in public opinion shouldn’t automatically be seen as representing social groups (e.g. “pro-US liberals”), the US-Australia military announcement has also prompted expressions of a very mainstream envy of the American state’s strong pursuit of its own national interest, in contrast with the Chinese state’s constant stream of “protests”. This is apparent in the discussion on Phoenix’s current lead story, ‘Obama announces increase in US forces in Australia from next year’ so far has 361 comments and 17,385 participants:
[陈东czy - Datong, Shanxi]: Obama is a good official. He does practical things for the American people. I support. [4698 recommends]
[xangqumeiguo - Hubei]: I originally thought it was 2.5 million troops, not just 250, imperialism is a paper tiger. 
In reply to “陈东czy” above [猪嗷 ("Sound of pigs") - Shenzhen, Guangdong]: I can honestly tell you: 250 is enough! 
In reply to “陈东czy” above [XBQ2010 - Harbin, Heilongjiang]: A good official??? The people are national “occupy” movements. Haven’t you seen the news? Idiot. 
The overwhelming popularity of the top comment and the generally envious tone of many others not translated here seems to express a kind of longing for unity between the state’s interests and the people’s interests on behalf of the Chinese cyber-masses – perhaps a particularly Chinese-Communist-Confucian preoccupation. Only the last commenter (XBQ2010) made any consideration the convulsions of competing interests, mostly vested, often corrupt, and decidedly elite, underlying the American system.
The CCP has done great things for the Chinese people over the past 70-odd years, all the while emphasising that it has always fully represents the interests of the broad masses. Back in the mid-20th century the idea that politics could and should be that way – with the powerful and powerless united in purpose – was relatively compatible with the existing Confucian-imperial ideal of “great community” (da tong). But in the internet era, with great volumes of information making a myriad of fundamental conflicts of interest clear on a daily basis, this desire for a sense of unity between weak and strong, many and few, is proving impossible to satisfy.
The upcoming East Asia Summit, the first to include America and Russia, is sure to involve some interesting South Sea diplomacy.
Ahead of the meeting, the Philippines has in the past few weeks been trying to organize a united ASEAN front based on demarcation of disputed and non-disputed sections of the South China Sea – known as the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)” proposal. China of course opposes this, and a Xinhua article yesterday claimed that it was little more than an attempt to help the US with its “return to Asia” strategy.
The Philippines’ efforts seemed at one point to have at least some momentum when, late last month, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang endorsed the ZoPFFC proposal. However, the idea seems to have decisively hit the wall in recent days, with the Malaysian Foreign Minister declaring that his country didn’t support the idea of raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS:
China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops . . . To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further.
Cambodia’s FM actually laughed when asked about the idea: “The problem is how to avoid . . . duplication,” he said, perhaps referring to each claimant state’s bilateral negotiations with China.
But a US presidential aide indicated today that Barack Obama will raise the issue at the EAS anyway. The Global Times has been swift in reporting the spokesman’s comments, under one of its inimitable headlines: ‘America plans to force itself into the South China Sea dispute, claims the issue is appropriate for the EAS’.
The Sixth East Asia Summit, aimed at pushing forward the process of East Asian integration and community, will begin in Bali on November 19. Yet the US, despite not being a relevant party to the South China Sea issue, and making its first appearance at the EAS, has declared that it wants to “discuss the South China Sea” at the summit.
However, the only major news website that has the story anywhere on its front page is Sina, which is running a toned-down CNS report, buried among other small headlines, rather than the GT’s fury-laced version, and this hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention so far (only 1,200 or so participants in the discussion, most comments voicing standard denunciations of American temerity). One particularly interesting reader comment, however, is to be found on the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal’s report, titled ‘China opposes discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS’:
What opposing discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS means is: “you can occupy the islands, but you can’t say so publicly”. China is only after face, not territory!
Although China definitely is after the territory, this comment is actually very incisive. The reality is that China currently occupies very little in the South China Sea – it has the Paracel Islands, but none of the genuine islands among the Spratlys – and as a result the CCP government loses face with the Chinese public every time the issue arises.
Update 1: Phoenix has just now posted the CNS report [zh] on the Obama staffer’s comments, if it provokes comment i will add some.
Update 2: QQ is running a report that ‘Japanese media claim US and ASEAN will issue joint statement on South China Sea’ [zh]. The report is from the Yoimuri Shimbun.
Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worryPosted: July 25, 2011
China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.
The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:
“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”
The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-’reform-and-opening’ sentiment.
Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]
Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]
Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]
Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]
Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]
Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]
Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]
The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?
By Zhong Weidong (Global Times Online)
According to a report from Japan’s Kyodo news agency, the governments of the US and Japan on June 21 announced their common strategic objectives, emphasizing “to encourage certain countries to not pursue or deploy military forces that could bring instability to the region”. The report says although the communique did not name the targets of its encouragement but it clearly revealed a posture of restricting the expansion of Chinese military force and joining hands to oppose China.
[. . .]
“Hottest comments” from 133750 participants/3483 comments as at 2:56 am BJ
Remember Chairman Mao! The old fellow opposed America on the one hand, the Soviets on the other, and also took down all the reactionaries! Brilliant! [24675 recommends]
We are a nation [民族] with a strong backbone, so when people come and poke us with their filthy fingers, would we really choose to bite our tongue and put up with it? Time after time, denouncing and forgiving, what has that brought us? Not the so-called peaceful solution, but some “shameless bandits” being given an inch and taking a mile. I’m a college student, I have no power, but I am a proud Chinese person, and I strongly demand that the state defend China’s sovereignty [强烈要求国家捍卫主权]. I am willing to contribute. [15859 recommends]
After reading this my mind feels contradictory. I love my country, but the country doesn’t love me. My conscience makes me ashamed to take the wrong position, so I’m neutral 站错位置，良心上有愧；还是中立吧…… [8868 recommends]
Stand up! Hiding behind the scenes, sowing dissension, setting sport-fires for fear that the world won’t be in chaos – this is America, an absolute nobody. We must protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity and also not fall for your provocations and start wars with those little countries. We are clear that you and Japan are our biggest enemies, using every means to isolate us and attack us, but the Chinese people have stood up and do not fear you. With our guidelines 方针 and our wisdom, we are already fully prepared for the struggle against you!! [5794 recommends]
To sell out territory to American and Japan is to be a traitor. 
America is a mountain on China’s head, Japan is a thorn in China’s throat. At the moment we can’t throw off the mountain from our head, but we can first pull out the thorn from our throat. 
I hope a few more earthquakes hit Little Japan – they’ve look to have the spare time to be deviously chirping away…
After reading this I spat out a mouthful of fresh blood! 
Down with US-Japanese imperialism, down with US-Japanese imperialism, long live the great unity of the Chinese people, compatriots make your voices heard, don’t be silent 
What do we get for helping Japan??? Which countries has China’s overseas aid converted? It’s like the netizen above said, America is a mountain on China’s head, Japan is a thorn in China’s throat. At the moment we can’t throw off the mountain from our head, but we can first pull out the thorn from our throat. The Chinese people strongly demand diplomatic ties be severed………
What’s so bad about this – can’t we just attack them? Worry and fear can’t solve problems, neither can negotiating, even less so pleading. You have to advance or retreat with big strides, create a space, not find fault with 1.3 billion people for standing up for their legitimate interests 那就大踏步地进退，腾出一个空间来，就不信了十三亿人为了自己的正当权利还由得他们来指手画脚 
Resolutely defend our country’s South Sea territorial integrity, resolutely fight back against the Japanese-American so-called alliance that seeks to contain our country. 
There are only relations of interest between countries, and there is only resistance by force…you pray for peace but it does not come… 
Old American friends, allow us to complete our smooth and steady stage, let the scene of prosperity we have created stay a while, say, do you want us to kneel down before you!! Just don’t get tough!!! 
If we comfort the Japanese people, they will be friendly towards us, and Little Japan won’t bite. Haha. 
Blatant provocation, a battle cry. Facing Japanese-American provocation and battle cries, China should make preparations for nuclear war. As soon as it starts, conventional warfare will be useless, so cover Japan in nukes. “Remember, remember!!” – history tells China that being feeble doesn’t bring peace, it only brings encroachment. 
At the end of the last post i raised the fanciful-sounding idea that a leftist struggle for power might be in progress within the Party, and interacting with popular opinion, especially online. Unlikely as the idea might seem, the discussion above could possibly be a sign that the 50c Party* has been mobilized in favour of a leftist faction within the CCP in the lead-up to the leadership handover next year. [Disclaimer: if it isn't already clear, this is pure speculation, but you have to use imagination in hypothesizing the black box...]
* Also not a monolith – there are loads of 50-centers working for a variety of local and central departments.