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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“A miracle if there is no military conflict”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part I (May 8-9)

CCTV Nightly News 《晚间新闻》, 9 May, 2012.
Voiceover: “This behaviour has caused an intense reaction and attention among the Chinese masses at home and abroad.

Last Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry declared to the world that Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying 傅莹 had summoned the Philippines’ charge d’affaires in Beijing, Alex Chua, and told him, “I met with you twice last month, and demanded that the Philippines calm down . . . the Philippines has clearly not recognised that it is committing a serious mistake”. [EN|ZH]

“The Chinese side has also made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side,” Madam Fu said, according to the MFA.

Although this was interpreted in some quarters (the WSJ’s headline-writing quarters at least) as signaling a hardline shift, the comment threads on the story on Phoenix and NetEase suggested that the Chinese online audience wasn’t buying it. Yet.

However, over the following couple of days a wave of hardline commentary and inflammatory coverage appeared to raise the hopes of those who, not to put too finer point on it, want China to start a war over Scarborough Shoal. According to a detailed survey conducted in late April by the Huanqiu Shibao‘s opinion polling centre (and widely publicised in the Chinese media, e.g. here), that describes almost 80% of the urban Chinese population.

We certainly shouldn’t take that result literally, for the survey was full of leading questions, probably because that’s the result it was designed to find. The majority of the population are, i suspect, quite apathetic, but the number strongly in favour of military action is definitely significant, if only because it’s China, where every percent of the population is 13 million people.

The key period in setting off this wave of war-hope and war-fear began at 22.05 on the evening of May 8. Read the rest of this entry »


Philippines radar station plans spark outrage

Just a few days ago the Philippines military announced its intention to purchase another second-hand US warship to patrol its South China Sea claims – on the very day President Aquino left China after a successful state visit. Combined with exaggerated state media accounts of China’s beneficence in agreeing to billions of dollars of new investments in the Philippines, this left many Chinese “netizens” feeling that China had been humiliated.

Today we saw an ideal follow-up, from the perspective of China’s commercial media:

The Philippines government announced yesterday that US$117 million in licence fees from the country’s Malampaya gasfield in the South China Sea will be used to upgrade military installations.

According to reports, the money will be used to purchase helicopters and warships and build radar stations to strengthen “defence” of oil and gas resources in the sea, where disputes exist with China.

The Chinese government has not yet expressed its view of these developments.

Although the story originated with provincial website Zhejiang Online (link now broken), it was among the top headlines on the front pages of major web portals NetEase, Sohu and Phoenix Online, and remained on prominent display throughout the course of September 8.

Predictably, the response from readers was a storm of indignation. The following responses are the most popular among the NetEase discussion, which involved 45,505 participants and 1,356 comments:

Anonymous (Taiyuan, Shanxi): China is going to provide RMB 20 million of free technological assistance to the Philippines. I can only laugh [8153 recommends]

Anonymous (Shanghai): They just sign a deal worth hundreds of millions, go home and use the money to build radar stations…..[5704]

qqlzl (Shanghai): Before when I saw this kind of news I would be majorly angry, but today I’m just indifferent. [4288]

qzm196505 (Fujian Province): A few days ago Philippine president Aquino visited my hometown, Zhangzhou, to pay respects to his ancestors and see the locals in his family’s village. The locals were as happy like it was Spring Festival, and Aquino said to them: “Fellows, my ancestral home is in China, in Jiaomei, Longhai County, Zhangzhou, in the village where I am standing! The Philippines wishes to learn from China’s development experience, invest more, extract more oil, and support local people!” The villagers were moved to tears— [2321]

iamkangroo (Foshan, Guangdong): Should . . . must . . . [1857]

Anon. (Changchun, Jilin): Nothing to do with me [1656] 

The wits-end tone of these comments, and in particular the popularity of the third comment, might suggest that “nationalists” are accepting that their (possibly GFC-inspired) hopes for a more muscular foreign policy were unrealistic. If so, this could be a positive trend in the sense that hardline factions within the state who might want to mobilize public pressure in favour of militaristic goals or their own ascendancy within the Party will have a hard time making that happen. A case of the Hawks Who Cried “Wolf!” perhaps?

It is also interesting to find the view that the South China Sea issue is irrelevant finally find expression. Of course, this comment could be (and probably was for at least some of the 1600+ readers who indicated agreement) an ironic, indirect way of disowning the CCP government’s weak actions (i.e. that the CCP’s weak policies have nothing to do with the commenter, not that the South China Sea issue is irrelevant), but it should be assumed, despite all the anger and ranting online, that indifference may well represent the views of a usually silent but overwhelmingly large majority.

More generally, this latest episode adds further weight to the conclusion that the Communist Party’s often-touted “nationalist legitimacy” may in fact be largely irrelevant. If people care at all, they seem to think the party-state is acting in their own interests, as distinct from the national interest.