Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.
His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.
Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute
In case i dont make it clear enough, a lot of what I write is speculative, my aim is to try understand these things as best I can, and I would really appreciate any alternative explanations, identification of shortcomings, points of disagreement, criticisms, biases identified, etc etc.
I am sure some of the interpretations I come up will turn out to be mistaken and/or incomplete, and although I hope some turn out to be right, it’s far from the end of the world if i’ve got it all wrong. It will be still have been worth the effort just to eliminate all those mistaken lines of thinking.
One idea i’ve been getting closer to ruling out is that Dai Xu and Luo Yuan aren’t serious PLA strategic thinkers. I think they are both propagandists and strategists. One sign is their publication in genuine journals like World Economics and Politics 《世界经济与政治》 (published by CASS), Contemporary International Relations 《现代国际关系》 (published by the MSS-affiliated CICIR), Contemporary World 《当代世界》 (CCP International Department), World Outlook 《国际展望》 (Shanghai Institute of International Relations), and Teaching and Research 《教育于研究》 (Renmin University).
While they are nominated as propaganda experts, they could still spend the bulk of their time in the world of thought rather than propaganda. Even Dai Xu, whose gigantic mass media output suggests he could probably spare little time for academic work, stated in 2009 that he does both internal and external work — that is, both thought 思想 and propaganda 宣传.
The difference between the two, as he said in his lecture to the PLAAF Political Academy in Shanghai, is that “in thought, anything goes, but propaganda has discipline”. This was, he said, the most important lesson he learned at the academy, his alma mater. There may be a large degree of crossover between Dai Xu Thought, and Dai Xu Propaganda — they may in fact be the same, except that the latter is presented and attenuated according to propaganda imperatives.
What follows, then, is something long overdue given the amount of attention i have focused on the propaganda side of Dai Xu and Luo Yuan’s work: a partial translation of an essay that i think may come close to representing what Dai Xu really thinks, as a strategist, on the South China Sea issue. It might not be pure thought…if there was such a thing, probably the only place it could reliably be identified would be in internal-circulation articles. But People’s Tribune Frontiers 《人民论坛.学术前沿》 appears a reputable (though recently-founded) CCP journal produced by the People’s Daily group, without any attempt at mass appeal, suggesting the audience would be mainly Party members and scholars, and perhaps soldiers and policymakers too. In other words, it could conceivably be part of the “internal work” that Dai says he does — Dai Xu Thought.
The article is titled ‘ ”Attacking the Enemy before It is Fully Prepared”: A Petition for Changing South China Sea Strategy (“兵半渡可击”:南海战略万言书)’, and is freely available via a Hainan-based website called ‘Maritime Domain Online’ (海疆在线) that i suspect is run by the Hainan Maritime Security and Cooperation Institute that Dai Xu directs.
As the title suggests, Dai makes specific policy suggestions, based on a contention that China has a rapidly-closing “window of opportunity” to “resolve” the South China Sea issue, and should therefore act sooner rather than later. Notably, however, one of these suggestions is to call for the total demilitarization of the South China Sea’s disputed areas. He advocates “intensifying economic exploitation” but also “welcoming cooperation”. He argues China should rally round the nine-dash line and avoid any involvement of UNCLOS, but he also seems to advocate negotiations. Dai’s calls for military preparations and willingness to use force to back up the assertive actions he suggests, but his emphasis is on deterrence and willpower.
Big thanks to Xu Shaomin for suggesting the article.
Here is the abstract, followed by a translation of the section in which Dai makes his policy suggestions with some thoughts on those policies appended, and finally a brief consideration of some implications for the explanations i’ve recently offered for the public activities of PLA “hawks” like Dai.
By Dai Xu
People’s Tribune [Academic] Frontiers 《人民论坛－－学术前沿》
ABSTRACT: An indisputable fact is that China is facing unprecedented challenges presented by the South China Sea issue. The said issue has been internationalized, and will soon become a focus of international politics. The South China Sea is of great significance for China’s development and security. With the development of this issue, Vietnam will rise to be China’s major concern. To successfully resolve this issue, China needs to devise a “protracted war” strategy; use the current crisis as an opportunity for a shift in military strategy; set up an interdepartmental coordination committee; and materially change its current South China Sea policy.
Specific suggestions to resolve the South China Sea issue
|(1.) Institute determination to resolve the issue, and commence joint preparations in all areas. At present America is not ready and has not properly armed those small countries, and external powers like Japan have not substantively entered the dispute. China must seize and occupy the strategic heights of the future, and cannot let it become the Yellow Sea again.||
The idea of (1) gets to the heart of the paper’s debatable but nonetheless logically defensible premise: namely, that China has a 5-10 year “window of opportunity” while the US is bogged down in the Middle East.
I don’t really understand this Yellow Sea reference.
|(2.) Unite thinking, resolutely stick to the nine-dash line. The nine-dash line is the legal basis for China’s ownership of the Spratlys, and we absolutely cannot renounce it. We cannot make UNCLOS the main note of negotiations.||
The strong defence in of the nine-dashed line as “legal basis” of China’s claim in (2), and associated rejection of UNCLOS, is somewhat surprising, considering that elsewhere Dai is quite keen on transparency and clarity of intentions. Why not clarify the claim? China could continue to claim all the land features within the nine-dash line, and actually be in accordance with UNCLOS. China’s real reason for not clarifying may be that it would entail enforcement under Chinese law, which the CCP may not be keen to commit to at this point. If so, could this particular argument of Dai’s be aimed at maintaining morale, while avoiding that sort of dangerous bind?
|(3.) On the level of unified thinking, eliminate fear of America. Surveying US-Russian relations one can see that America respects strength. Russia halted the US [Cold War] strategic attack in Southeast Asia, and stopped the expansion of NATO beyond Ukraine and Georgia. We cannot say that [Deng/Jiang's doctrine of] “lying low 韬光养晦” is incorrect, but China is unaware of how to “loot a burning house 趁火打劫”. China must have an awareness of global strategic games. China should participate in South American affairs, the scramble for Arctic resources, Middle East affairs, African affairs, and force the US to encircle us all around the world, “saving Zhao by besieging Wei 围魏救赵”, thus reducing the pressure on our doorstep. Increase cooperation with Russia, cooperate on the Kurils issue to draw Japan northward, and weaken US military allies.||
The idea of causing headaches for the US around the world to relieve the pressure on China’s periphery, as set out in (3), employs a coherent (if somewhat unhealthy when viewed from outside) strategic logic.
I’m not going to pretend to know what’s best for China, but the multi-departmental group mentioned in (4) also seems to make sense.
|(4.) Establish a multi-departmental South China Sea coordination small group. The group would be jointly composed from the military, academia, State Oceanic Administration, Hainan Provincial Government, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It should change the situation of the MFA being under stress from dealing with the complicated South China Sea situation alone. It should coordinate all the departments relevant to the South China Sea.||
(4) contains a clear argument for reducing the MFA’s power in South China Sea policymaking, via an indirect but unmistakable criticism of both the prominence of the Foreign Ministry’s role, and the job it is doing. Dai’s apparent perception of the MFA as dominating South China Sea policy is in stark contrast to various foreign analysts who have written of the weakness of the MFA, fragmentation in China’s foreign policymaking, especially on maritime disputes.
|(5.) Major adjustment must be made to South China Sea policy, prioritizing [economic] exploitation . Since diplomacy being unable to resolve the issue, and our country is unwilling to go to war lightly, all that remains is to greatly intensify economic exploitation. Our country’s South China Sea policy should be adjusted to: sovereignty is ours, intensifying exploitation, welcoming cooperation, not fearing controversy, striking against provocation. Exploitation is central. In order to reduce the concerns of the international community, China’s exploitation should proceed with the primary objective of serving the world. For example, constructing an international shipping depot, and an international tourism and sightseeing spot. To this end, a South China Sea Special Zone should be established, as a maritime screen that also performs the functions of economic national defense 经济国防.||
Dai’s Hainan connections keep stacking up. It seems likely that he is to some extent speaking on behalf of the Hainan Provincial Government, especially with the strong advocacy of economic development projects in (5).
How novel is “economic national defense 经济国防“, meaning economic activities for national defense purposes, in the Chinese context and more broadly?
|(6.) Call on all countries’ militaries to withdraw from the South China Sea. Because Vietnam and the Philippines’ garrisoning of troops has affected regional shipping security, China should call for all countries to pull out their militaries simultaneously. This way, China can claim the moral high ground.||
Dai in (5) describes China being “unwilling” to go to war lightly as a “situation” that has left massive resource exploitation as the only option — which sounds like a (grudging?) admission that direct military action is off the policy table. Then in (6) he actually advocates the pullout of all military forces from the area, apparently including China’s.
|(7.) Prepare properly for war [with Vietnam]. China should, at the appropriate time, adjust its strategic focus, and conduct far-sighted and realistic research on the South China Sea. Make every kind of war preparation in the South China Sea area, especially for war-fighting 作战 against Vietnam. As soon as conflict commences, Vietnam’s facilities must be totally destroyed, and its ports blockaded.||
Dai is very harsh and provocative regarding Vietnam, for example in (7). What is Dai’s problem with Vietnam? Or could it be Hainan’s problem with Vietnam?
Enacting strategic containment of Vietnam is beneficial to the long-term stability of the South China Sea region, and also to improving our country’s overall security situation.
Implications for ‘Propaganda, Not Policy’
While some of these arguments may be attenuated from Dai’s mass media statements, he really does appear to be attempting to pushing for policy change in the South China Sea, which at a glance spells trouble for the ‘Propaganda, Not Policy’ explanation i’ve been proposing. Yet, contrary to what some angry military enthusiasts assume, the Propaganda Not Policy argument does not necessarily imply Dai Xu doesn’t mean what he says. He may mean most or all of what he says publicly, but he only says it if and when it accords with the priorities of his superiors in the military propaganda system.
Alternatively, considering the likely target audience of the People’s Tribune Frontiers, an article such as this could be aimed at the masses of cadres, officers and possibly soldiers. David Cohen discussed in the most recent China Brief how the constitutionalism debate could be intended to rally cadres to be vigilant and toe the line. It’s plausible that this has a similar intent.
What’s different about this is that it has been published in a forum for genuine scholarly debate over policy, rather than a mass medium. Perhaps all that is certain about this possible piece of Dai Xu Thought, is that he was attempting to influence the Party and academic policy debate within China. Whether the ultimate aim of that was to institute the specific policy actions, or to shift the mindset of the readers — such as by raising the vigilance of cadres and perhaps soldiers – is unclear to me. What do you think, Dear Reader? What are the other possibilities that i’m overlooking?
 Other notable titles that Luo and/or Dai have been published in include Party & Government Forum 《党政干部文摘》 (Shanghai and Central Party School versions), World Affairs 《世界知识》 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Contemporary Military Digest 《当代军事文摘》 (PLA Publishing House), Aerospace Knowledge 《航空知识》 (China Aviation Society). Found using CNKI database.
 I’m going to leave out the “external” from the “external propaganda expert” title, as it risks confusing the issue. Military external propaganda, as noted here, is not just about foreigners, and in fact may be overwhelmingly domestically directed, even as it serves international goals of public opinion warfare.
 Unless he has a team of ghost writers…?! His book publishing, however, has indeed slowed down in recent years.
 Can anyone enlighten me as to the People’s Tribune (Frontiers) target readership and/or purposes?
 Sovereignty over merely the largest two or three of the Spratlys — those with fresh water and therefore at least arguably inhabitable — would generate exclusive economic rights covering most of the area within the nine-dash line.
 开发, aka “development”.
I’d also like to add my thanks to Xuan Cheng, John Garnaut, James Barker, Mark Stokes and Taylor Fravel for discussions and tips on this topic. They don’t necessarily agree with the content of the article.
Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16
August 9, 2013
By: Andrew Chubb
If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-CCP propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole.
In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instil confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands.
This post was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog:
Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.
Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only non-PRC South China Sea claimant state that Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full – seems to suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.
Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”
If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.
In last week’s Sinica Podcast, M. Taylor Fravel discussed the March 1988 Sino-Vietnamese battle in the Spratly Islands, recounting how the PLAN Commander was moved from his post afterwards as a result of his unauthorized decision to open fire on the Vietnamese Navy.
This could make the 1988 battle appear as a historical example of uncoordination in the PRC’s behaviour towards the outside world — a rogue commander taking foreign policy into his own hands. However, the decision to send the Navy in to establish a presence on unoccupied reefs in the Spratlys was a centralized, high-level one.
Today, the Chinese Navy is better equipped and better trained, so the chances of something similar happening are small. The unwavering non-involvement of the PLAN in China’s maritime territorial disputes, even as tensions have risen to boiling point, is a testament to the navy’s professionalization, and a site of consensus among China’s policymakers. The US Department of Defense in 2011 presciently pinpointed (see p.60) the increasing use of non-military law enforcement agencies to press China’s claims in disputed waters as an important component of PRC policy. Since then, this approach has become ever-more salient.
China’s maritime law enforcement fleets have long been seen as a source of policy disorganization, both within China and abroad; back in 2002, for example, the Hainan Provincial NPC delegation tabled a motion to establish a unified maritime law-enforcement fleet.
But in the podcast Fravel drew attention to how this year the China Maritime Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement fleets have actually coordinated rather well, both with each other and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in advancing China’s maritime claims.
Hu Jintao met with his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday at the APEC summit in Vladivostok, and made a rare official comment on the South China Sea disputes. From the China Daily’s report:
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Chinese President Hu Jintao said China and Vietnam should keep cool-headed and show restraint on the South China Sea issue.
. . .
Hu urged the two countries to adhere to bilateral negotiations and political solutions, and stay on the path of joint development.
Hu said the two sides should keep cool-headed and show restraint, and avoid taking any unilateral measure that would magnify, complicate or internationalize the dispute, in order not to let the South China Sea issue affect East Asian cooperation or regional stability.
These cool-headed, restrained, joint-developing, dispute-shelving remarks were all over the PRC official media yesterday (Friday September 7), from when i first heard it on China National Radio, to the CNS report and the Foreign Ministry’s website.
The online mass media soon followed suit, with all the five top news portals except Netease having the story in their #1 or #2 headline slots by 12.25pm, and keeping them near the top until late in the evening.
Not surprisingly, given that “Hu Jintao” is a sensitive search term on the PRC internet, the comment threads were heavily censored. Phoenix’s has 25,000+ participants but only 92 comments (representing a KimLove Credibility Ratio well above 250:1), the latest of which was posted at exactly 20.00 last night:
Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s long and broad vision, national defence needs fundamental strengthening, diplomatic solutions are the official policy, war is an action of last resort.
in reply to
Firmly endorse Chairman Hu’s proposition, uphold the unwavering Sino-Vietnamese friendship, even if Vietnam occupies even more Chinese territory we will still go on with the friendship, if worst comes to worst we’ll give them Hainan too, could they really still be unsatisfied with that? If so, how about Hong Kong, and Guangdong province?
Being the last comment the website’s editors have decided to allow through, this earnest defence of Hu has stayed in place at the top of the page — but only those who choose to click the “newest comments” tab will see it.
By default, it’s the top comments, not the latest comments, that appear on readers’ screens, and they have to scroll a long way down through those, to the 14th comment to be precise, before they find anything remotely complimentary about Chairman Hu’s remarks — and even that appears to be posted by a foreigner.
Over at Sina, where as of 4am Saturday it remains the #3 story on the front page, the involvement of the censors is even more blatant: 1700-odd “participants” and only eight comments. In fact, that means i can translate the entire “conversation”. Here it is as it appears for readers (ie. from latest to earliest):
First strike Japan, then Vietnam, and then the Philippines, don’t talk about it just do it [3 supports]
Patriotism and protecting the country rely on actual power. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be beaten 
Vietnam cannot even feed itself. 
Vietnam, this ungrateful country, it doesn’t do reason, it needs to be hit 
Patriotism has one word: hit 
[We] must clearly distinguish enemies from friends 
The pattern on the thread attached to the same story on Tencent’s news portal also appears to be the same as those on Phoenix and Sina: calls for war, sardonic criticism of Hu’s policy, and KIRs high enough to suggest most comments are being either deleted or hidden from view.
Given the importance of Chairmen Hu and Truong’s meeting, the high profile given to this story by all the PRC media, the fact that the story sat* prominently among the leading headlines on the portals, and the very obvious signs of rigging, it’s hard to see how the comments could represent anything other than exactly what the censors had decided the netizens should be seen to be saying.. The question in my mind is, who were the censors?
By default, of course, we must assume that the censors of news comment threads are always individual employees of PRC internet companies, in this case Sina and Phoenix. There’s presumably a management/command chain above them that leads up to some decision-making group within the company, though i have no idea of a.) how far above the “grass-roots” censors they are; b.) how far below the company’s top management they are; or c.) how they connect with the various relevant government bodies — e.g. MIIT, SCIO, Central & provincial Propaganda Depts.
It really seems a stretch to impute that the party or government would put out an instruction to major websites telling them to only allow comments calling for war with Vietnam on the day that the President calls for cooperation with Vietnam during a headline bilateral meeting at a major international forum.
Especially in CCP China, where the same president’s name cannot be searched on the country’s most vibrant social network.
* It continues to sit there even now at 4.50am the next day
Ding Gang, senior reporter at the People’s Daily, had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, titled, ‘Ding Gang: more “doing” required in the South China Sea‘.
Last year Ding argued passionately for cooperation with ASEAN, for complete clarification of China’s claims and even, in the latter article, that India and Vietnam should be allowed to explore oil Blocks 128 and 129. This time, however, he argues that China has done well out of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, and the lesson is that China should kickstart more of these incidents.
Ding is tapping into a very deep pool of rhetorical capital, which is discussed after the summary translation below.
Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), August 29
By Ding Gang 丁刚, Senior reporter, Renmin Ribao
There is a saying in Chinese diplomacy, taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei. But given China’s vastly-increased national power, it’s the latter phrase, meaning “take some actions”, that may be more important — especially when it comes to the South China Sea.
The heat has gone down around Scarborough Shoal [China is effectively in control of the atoll -- SSC]. Experts have said that the outcome of the Scarborough Shoal standoff shows that there is a “Huangyan Model” that China can use to solve its other problems in the SCS.
There was a post here last year about the KD Pari, a Malaysian Navy fast attack craft that sort-of-sank while allegedly chasing a Chinese ship near Swallow Reef. It still continues to attract traffic from the search engines, which hints at a general dearth of information on the Malaysian dimension to the South China Sea disputes.
Malaysia usually gets little noticed in the Chinese media too, when it comes to the South China Sea issue, but that changed with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Amin’s comment on August 12 that Southeast Asian states should sort out their South China Sea claims before negotiating with China. At a press conference right after his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi (who wasn’t in attendance), Anifah said:
There are overlapping claims by member countries. Let us discuss these among ASEAN countries first before we talk to China . . . We can only achieve this objective in the South China Sea if all parties agree. Then China can appreciate this and realise it is ASEAN’s wish.
Although Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency did not report these comments, they were still picked up, translated and introduced into the Chinese media by the Huanqiu Shibao. This led in turn to the following report from Yunnan TV. As the summary translation indicates, it struck an indignant tone that painted Malaysia as yet another addition to the list of hostile anti-China forces.
Summary translation follows after the jump…
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.